Judge: Government can end housing aid for Puerto Rican evacuees

BOSTON — A judge in Massachusetts ruled Thursday that the federal government can end a temporary housing voucher program for Puerto Rican hurricane evacuees living in hotels across the U.S. Worcester-based U.S. Judge Timothy Hillman said he didn’t believe it was the right thing to do but his hands were tied by the law.

Hillman denied an effort to force the government to continue providing aid until all of the evacuees either receive temporary housing or find permanent housing. But he ordered the Federal Emergency Management Agency to keep the program in place through Sept. 13 to give the evacuees time to make other plans.

Hillman said he was forced to issue the ruling because the evacuees weren’t likely to succeed on the merits of their case, but he also said the ruling was “not necessarily the right result.” He said he cannot order the government “to do that which in a humanitarian and caring world should be done.”

He also urged the two sides to work together to find temporary housing or other aid for the evacuees before the program ends.

LatinoJustice PRLDEF, an advocacy group that brought the lawsuit on behalf of the evacuees, said its legal team was reviewing its options and hoped to issue a statement later.

A FEMA spokesman said the agency is working to notify hotels that evacuees will be allowed to stay until checkout time on Sept. 14, but said there will be no further extension of the programs beyond that date.

The evacuees have been living in hotels on the mainland through the Transitional Sheltering Assistance Program since they fled the island after Hurricane Maria last September. The aid was initially supposed to expire June 30. As of this month, hundreds of families were still using the vouchers.

The U.S. territory’s governor on Tuesday raised the official death toll from Hurricane Maria from 64 to 2,975 – almost twice the government’s previous estimate.

Attorneys for the evacuees claimed FEMA had provided housing assistance in a “discriminatory manner” because they weren’t doing enough for Puerto Rican evacuees compared to how it treated Texas residents after Hurricane Harvey last year.

The federal government said it didn’t handle the housing vouchers any differently from those of residents displaced by Texas and Florida hurricanes.

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