Gentrification Displaces Domestic Violence Survivors in Puerto Rico
By Valeria María Torres Nieves, Todas y Centro de Periodismo Investigativo
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — When looking for short-term accommodations on Puerto Rico’s northern coast, in the town of Manatí, for example, 45 alternatives come up on the Airbnb platform. Clasificados Online shows only seven properties for long-term rental and two ads seeking affordable rent that accepts subsidized housing vouchers.
When a survivor arrives at an emergency shelter, an individualized plan is created for her outlining the services she needs to stabilize her life after a traumatic experience of violence. Once she receives the services and her life is, under the circumstances, more normalized, the process of identifying housing begins. That’s how the survivor’s independence and self-sufficiency are developed.
Coraly León Morales, executive director of Casa Protegida Julia de Burgos organization —which has two emergency shelters— assured that the search for rental housing usually took a month, even less. Now, coinciding with what planner José Rivera Santana has described as an accelerated gentrification process, which makes living spaces more expensive and displaces poor people to make way for the rich, the relocation of participants in transitory homes may take three or four months.
Rivera Santana said the proliferation in recent years of short-term rentals and the hoarding of real estate and land by investors invited to Puerto Rico with incentive laws, has spurred an increase in property value and is one of the reasons for the displacement acceleration. This adds to what he considers an endemic problem: the gap between the median home price on the market and the median household income. “That gap has not closed but instead has widened as construction projects focus on high-cost housing,” the planner explained.
“Events such as Hurricane María, earthquakes, even the pandemic, deepen that inequity, and housing that remains vacant is taken by investors, who don’t come with an attitude of reducing those inequities but rather to capitalize [on] what they understand was the invitation that the island extended them,” said Rivera Santana.
The situation has a domino effect on the services offered by shelters, because to the extent that survivors cannot be placed in housing outside the shelter, fewer spaces are available for other women who need protection to escape cycles of domestic violence. In addition, it has required a greater effort from the shelters’ staff to convince landlords to grant a decent and quick housing space to the survivors.
“The difficulty that we’re having is that many of the places we originally had access to are becoming Airbnbs or have increased [their cost] considerably. When I say ‘increased,’ it means that the rent has doubled and tripled,” León Morales said specifically about her experience in the metropolitan area.
She estimated that in the last year the organization has lost about six landlords who rented homes to Casa Julia participants. The organization is currently negotiating with other landlords who have expressed an interest in leaving the Casa Julia housing program to offer their spaces for short-term rentals, with which they would make more money.
Since the implementation of Act 22 approved in 2012 in Puerto Rico, which attracts foreign investors with tax incentives, access to affordable housing for survivors has been a growing challenge, said Lisdel Flores, executive director of Hogar Ruth, which operates three housing programs for survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking, and dating violence.
“One of the biggest challenges has been spurred by this situation of the arrival of investors in Puerto Rico, who are excessively buying [properties]. The biggest challenge has been the lack of inventory, because, for the first time, I have to say that there is no lack of resources,” said Flores, who pointed out that there is a “historic” amount of funds available to subsidize the rents of survivors.
She added that, while the change in housing affordability has been evident since Hurricane María struck in 2017, the situation has worsened since the COVID-19 pandemic. Data from the Federal Housing Financing Agency shows that housing prices in Puerto Rico have increased 24 percent in the last two years.
Cultural anthropologist Rima Brusi believes the relationship between gentrification and the lack of affordable housing inventory for the relocation of domestic violence survivors is to be expected and stressed that there is a lack of academic knowledge about how the phenomenon operates in Puerto Rico, even more so with a gender perspective.
The surge in housing prices mainly affects vulnerable people and is aggravated by race, gender, and social class factors, she explained.
The Office of the Ombudswoman’s (OPM, in Spanish) deputy official, Madeline Bermúdez, was not specific about the measures that the agency has in place to address the situation, beyond subsidizing feminist organizations that offer services that the State does not provide.
She assured that the OPM has taken its concern on the matter to the workgroups in which it participates, given the data from studies that they have developed for internal use show how gentrification affects women’s lives.
“It is a project that we’ve started and we’re taking the first steps: making sure that the resources are there, making sure that the problem is understood, letting people know what the current situation is and how it has been growing,” she said.
Puerto Rico Department of Housing Secretary William Rodríguez Rodríguez said he has allocated recovery funds that subsidize the construction of social interest housing projects to counteract the situation. “The State assumes its responsibility to help preserve and increase the inventory, through the injection of funds, in this case, federal funds,” he said, although this does not solve the immediate problem.
The Secretary noted the allocation of Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery funds for shelters serving domestic violence victims to improve, expand, or create housing spaces for survivors. He said that the program’s cap is $2.5 million, of which $950,000 was allocated to Hogar Ruth and $270,000 to Casa Protegida Julia de Burgos.
The executive director of Casa Protegida Julia de Burgos said the funds that the shelter received were allocated for resilience improvements in the face of a possible hit by another hurricane, such as the installation of solar panels, waterproofing the roof, and kitchen equipment. That money, she said, is not intended to solve the problem of access to housing for participants and cannot be used for purposes other than the one for which it was granted.
Meanwhile, the director of Hogar Ruth pointed out the delay in the disbursement of funds to develop building expansions. “It’s not that there are no financial resources. I think it’s the will to move things more quickly, with less bureaucracy, and to develop the programs that we have to develop,” said Flores.
Women Are Twice Victims of Displacement
Brusi defined gentrification as a process in which both property rental and sales prices in a particular sector increase, when it becomes, for some reason, more desirable for a wealthier population than the one originally living there.
She also said the colonial aspect must be considered in the Puerto Rican context, since the gentrifiers seen in the archipelago are people not only with greater economic capital but also mainly from the United States.
“At the end of the day, we are fundamentally talking about displacement when we talk about gentrification. They are displacing you from your home, from your neighborhood, from your town, from your right to decent housing,” the anthropologist emphasized.
In this way, domestic violence survivors are victims of displacement twice due to gender violence and gentrification.
“The way in which the island is being projected, as a tax haven, affects poor people and affects survivors of domestic violence who are looking to be able to resume their lives,” said León Morales.
Brusi urged paying attention to a new wave of workers who have moved to Puerto Rico to serve wealthy U.S. citizens, who prefer to employ people who speak their language and look like them. She considers these workers to be middle-class gentrifiers that directly affect access to housing in vulnerable populations. Although they are not rich, they have more spending capacity than most in Puerto Rico. So it is more attractive for landlords to rent houses to these people, instead of working with programs such as Section 8, which consists of vouchers, subsidized with federal funds, that allow low-income people to freely choose their home and prevent poverty from concentrating in a certain geographical area.
Brusi explained that, for landlords, it is very attractive to rent to these new tenants because, contrary to subsidized housing programs, they don’t have to have a relationship with the entities that administer the funds, wait for their approval, or maintain price controls.
Flores explained that prior to the arrival of investors who are beneficiaries of Act 22, transitional housing programs that the shelters offered were very attractive to property owners because they guaranteed monthly payments.
“We stopped being attractive after Hurricane María, when all costs increased and when Airbnb and short-term rentals have proliferated in this absurd way, which is a business that is not necessarily regulated,” said the director of Hogar Ruth. She also noted that this is not a problem exclusive to survivors, but also affects the entire working class.
Housing Secretary Rodríguez Rodríguez refused to classify the situation as “pure gentrification because I think there must be some particular factors where there are some very specific displacements of communities,” and urged looking at the issue “carefully.”
In addition, he does not agree that the rising housing prices trend began after Hurricane María. Instead, he said there was a decline in property values and an exodus of people.
However, Brusi said that gentrification in Puerto Rico was precisely evident following the forced emigration, in 2017, after the hurricanes—natural disasters that became political.
“Gentrification is a very useful term, but it falls short of describing what is happening in Puerto Rico. In Puerto Rico, we must evaluate the angle of displacement, gentrification as the displacement of a population. So add a cultural element, an element of colonial settlement, and an element of forced emigration: the expulsion of people from the island for economic reasons,” the cultural anthropologist pointed out.
The issue of not having a safe house, even if it is temporary, affects survivors’ healing process. If they do not have their basic needs met, they will not be able to focus on their process of dealing with the trauma of violence.
“All those environments that she is engaged with aren’t going to allow her to heal properly. In fact, they could lead her to go back into the relationship or be in an equally violent relationship, perhaps because of the desperation to solve this chaos [of homelessness] that they’re dealing with at that time,” warned Flores.
Implications in the Processes of Recovery and Independence of Survivors
Support programs in the search for housing also encourage women to increase their income, so that they can support themselves once the subsidy period ends, which generally lasts two years.
As gentrification drives up the cost of living, it is becoming more difficult for survivors to develop financial independence.
“When those funds run out, are those survivors going to be able to assume the rent? That’s my concern. Is Puerto Rico livable for survivors, if the cost of living continues to rise?” wondered the executive director of Casa Protegida Julia de Burgos, concerning the money that subsidizes transitory housing rent for up to two years, which can be extended depending on the case.
Program Requirements Not in Line With Market Reality
Flores said the indicators that establish how much can be paid for housing rent for survivors must change, since they are determined by the median income in Puerto Rico, which is $21,058, according to data from the 2020 Census.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) Fair Market Rent determines how much subsidized rents should cost. For example, a one-bedroom property in Jayuya, in the central mountainous region, should cost about $370, including utilities, according to HUD. When searching for Clasificados Online, the page where shelter staff usually do their initial search, the only rent found was $395 a month.
According to data from Abexus Analytics, a one-night stay in a short-term rental in Jayuya, as of March 2022, cost an average of $470. This price is beaten only in Dorado, a town with high-income areas, where lodging was $550 per night.
“I insist a lot on this because I’m concerned about what I’m seeing and I’m concerned about what’s going to happen in the future in this reality in which a lot of money has landed in Puerto Rico. There are many economic resources, but they don’t fit our reality. We’re going to lose the funds and we’re going to continue to have people on the street,” Flores warned about the money that has arrived in Puerto Rico due to hurricanes, earthquakes, and the pandemic.
These funds have a certain deadline for their use. If unused, due to the inaccessibility of housing costs, they could be lost.
She said she brought this concern to HUD Secretary Marcia Fudge, who was in Puerto Rico a few weeks ago. Flores asked her to take the claim to the U.S. Congress, the only body that can amend the way Fair Market Rent is determined.
Secretary Rodríguez Rodríguez said that in all the meetings he had with Secretary Fudge there were two clear, strong, and persistent demands: the increase in the Fair Market Rent and the increase in the income limit to be eligible for the housing programs.
Brusi believes that the gap between the indicators for the search for subsidized housing, rental costs, and the median income in Puerto Rico is a good measure for calculating gentrification in the island.
For León Morales, access to housing is a matter of human rights. “To the extent that we don’t have that feminist lens from public policy, we’re also failing the survivors and we continue to add to that historical debt that we have with survivors of gender violence,” she said.
Despite the difficulties that shelters face, the executive director of Hogar Ruth urged victims of domestic violence to continue seeking their services.
“It’s important that they get out of that relationship and that they trust that we’re going to help them. We’re not going to rest until we can do it and relocate them. It’s a challenge, but I think that, from the organizations’ standpoint, we’re so used to working with so many challenges … Be sure we’re going to do it,” she emphasized.
Studying the Phenomenon Is Crucial to Propose Solutions
Brusi proposed that studies be carried out to measure gentrification in Puerto Rico, and that such research is not limited to the academy. She said it must be a matter of citizen participation that integrates activists, the press, and people in general.
She believes that although the increase in the cost of living and the proliferation of short-term rentals is obvious to the entire population, the phenomenon should be described and measured, and public policies should be created or amended to address the situation.
She warned caution with solutions such as the creation of affordable housing sectors that group poor people in a certain space and the rich in another, because those are policies that contribute to discrimination and displacement.
If you or someone you know is in a gender violence situation, call the Helpline: 787-489-0022.
Valeria María Torres Nieves is a feminist journalist from Yauco, Puerto Rico. She graduated from the Universidad de Puerto Rico, Río Piedras, with a bachelor’s degree in information and journalism.