Welcome to season 2 of Resilient Housing Across the Americas! Today we’re speaking with Puerto Rico’s Secretary of Housing, William Rodriguez about Puerto Rico’s unique role bridging housing between the US and Latin America, and the evolving role of his department in the context of housing and disasters.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Juan Caballero: Hello, good afternoon. We are here at the Fifth Forum on Housing in Latin America and the Caribbean, by Habitat for Humanity and UHPH. I’m Juan Caballero, Chief of Programs of Build Change, and we are in our Resilient Housing Across the Americas series. Today with Secretary William Rodríguez from the Department of Housing of Puerto Rico, welcome!
Secretary William Rodriguez: Thank you for hosting us. Greetings to all who are watching us.
JC: Secretary, a very general question for our audience. Can you tell us a little bit about the mandate of the Department of Housing in Puerto Rico, what it does, what its responsibilities are, and how it runs?
WR: Great question, the Secretary of Housing position has changed a lot in the last few years, and that has a lot to do with the natural disasters that have occurred in Puerto Rico. Even though it is an agency that originally sets public policy mainly in terms of housing development, especially for the most vulnerable low-to-moderate income sectors, it sets public policy for housing in Puerto Rico, but that role has changed a little bit.
All of this has to do with the fact that Puerto Rico received very substantial resources after the hurricanes, earthquakes, and the pandemic, and most of those funds are managed by the Department of Housing, so the role of the housing department has changed a little bit, and it is also responsible for reconstruction, not only housing, but also economic development and energy, and many other areas.
JC: Several resources have been added. I read somewhere that it is the second-largest program or allocation of resources for housing if I am not mistaken.
WR: It is the largest ever in the United States, $20 billion.
JC: Yes, I believe it is the second largest in the world if I am not mistaken.
WR: It has to be that way.
JC: And tell me, now in your first answer we more or less touched on the subject, but I see that after the recent natural disasters, particularly after Hurricane Maria in 2017, there has been a shift in the functions of the department.
WR: Primarily, as I mentioned, the Department of Housing was simply dealing with the issue of housing, which is not an easy issue to solve. But the passage of time and the number of funds that were arriving gave the Department a much greater opportunity to address other needs that Puerto Rico had, especially after the devastation.
For those who tune in, Hurricane Maria was the most catastrophic hurricane to hit Puerto Rico, and one of the most catastrophic in this hemisphere, so total devastation on the island, requiring unprecedented reconstruction, which amounts to about $80 billion.
JC: And how is the interaction with the United States federal agencies? Because Puerto Rico has a somewhat unique feature. How does that work with FEMA or with other federal agencies?
WR: Well, it has been a learning experience. I think that after more than five years, we have very effective communication and a very effective relationship. There were also two stories, two administrations during this process: The Trump administration and the Biden administration, and they were two slightly different stories.
I had the pleasure of coming in when President Biden took office, and the relationship between Puerto Rico and Washington is excellent. We also have the blessing that the Governor of Puerto Rico previously served as Puerto Rico’s Representative in the U.S. Congress, so he has excellent relations there that have allowed us to work on each of these programs more flexibly and with better performance.
JC: The position of Puerto Rico is very interesting because it is a bridge for us…we are an organization based in the United States, so it is a bridge between the universe of resilience and housing in the United States, but also in the Latin American and Caribbean region. What is your relationship with other Latin American or Caribbean neighbors? Does that have anything to do with it?
WR: It’s interesting: culturally, we are Latin American, and we have had a relationship with the United States for over 100 years. Puerto Rico is an unincorporated territory of the United States, so it’s not a country, but it’s also not a state of the United States.
We have a unique relationship with the United States that allows us to have access to federal funds like the ones that have been mentioned here, and it also allows us to have cultural exchanges and some trade exchanges with our neighboring countries in the region, and especially the trade exchanges that take place in the Caribbean region, in Mexico, and even in Colombia.
JC: And what is needed in Puerto Rico to increase resilience in housing? How do you see that?
WR: Right now, we have a lot of resources, and that’s important… For those who are tuning in: Puerto Rico has gone through a very severe financial crisis in which we defaulted and that practically bankrupted us, from which we have practically already emerged, and we are once again entering the markets.
But that has given us a series of situations in which we have had a backlog in resilience and the development of new housing, and now we have the opportunity to do all of that development, and with all of those funds that are going into resilience, there is a reflection on how we can improve each of the houses that we build with those funds.
From the architectural design to the measures that we implement in terms of solar panels, batteries, and potable water tanks – we know that when another phenomenon occurs, such as the hurricanes that I mentioned, earthquakes, and recently the visit of a tornado in the west of the island (which we have never seen before), we can be very well prepared and we can survive such an event like that.
JC: Thank you very much, very kindly.