“Intense” – The Clash of a Daydream vs. Reality

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Whenever anyone asks me how the “trip” to Puerto Rico was, I tell them it was intense. This really throws people off because they expect the standard, “oh, it was great!” But this wasn’t a vacation, this wasn’t just an outing. This was a trip that revolved around serving the people of Puerto Rico through humanitarian brigades and pro bono legal services. As Student Attorneys in the University at Buffalo School of Law Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic, we traveled a lot, and we saw a lot too. We observed a mix of average/rich people, as well as the very poor. We experienced the clash of a daydream and reality

Puerto Rico is beautiful and confusing.  The natural beauty of the landscape, flora and fauna, and the wonderful people all makes you feel like you’re in a little paradise. You can easily find Walmart, Marshalls, K-Mart, Old Navy, Macy’s, JC PeIMG_1248nny, Forever 21, and outlet malls with every fancy name brand you can think of. However, I can guarantee you, within a quarter mile of any of those stores or malls, you will see the reality of Puerto Rico’s current situation.

You will see people just trying to make things work so they can live their lives. You will see innumerable blue tarp roofs, houses without roofs, people living in abandoned storefronts because their house was destroyed, and more. It’s like walking from a daydream into a harsh reality. If you move a little further from the façade, you’ll see poverty on a scale that should never exist in America.

It’s a constant conflict that’s very unsettling. It’s hard to comprehend how there can be a shopping center right next door to a community that’s suffering and struggling just to put roofs back over their heads. It’s why we were there as part of #UBLawResponds.

Paying Rent Under a Blue Roof: Landlord Tenant Law in Puerto Rico after Maria

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Imagine experiencing a hurricane: you are terrified for your own safety, that of your loved ones, your property. You’re concerned about basic survival: life becomes a lot harder when you have no electricity and no cell phone signal. The place you are employed may be temporarily or permanently closed—you’ve also lost your income. But, for many tenants in Puerto Rico, their concerns don’t end there.

Add to all your other concerns the fact that the property that you pay to live in has been seriously damaged by the hurricane. You’re living under a “blue roof” (a tarp); chances are your landlord is in a tough financial situation after the hurricane as well and cannot afford to make such a huge repair or is waiting to get help from his insurance or possibly FEMA. Now you’re in a tough position: living under a blue roof, you’re still expected to pay your rent.

Some readers may simply think: if your landlord’s not willing to get the job done, then just move. But, regardless of whether you rent a home or own a home, it’s important to never forget that the place you live is still your home.

It’s hard to define the idea of home. Habitat for Humanity did it’s best to try to define “home.” It asked the people that it helps provide with houses what they consider to be home and found that “the common thread binding each family was that each home became these families’ base for everything: faith, hope, family, school, fellowship, even future struggles and conquests.”

Home is your safe place, your place of refuge. What an awful thing to lose, but it’s a common loss as a result of natural disasters. So, in the case that you cannot afford to move, do not have the energy to move, or simply don’t want to move, it’s important to know your rights.

As a #UBLawResponds student in the University at Buffalo School of Law’s Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic, I have done research to help tenants know their rights. Here’s a quick breakdown of some of the most important things to know about your rights as a tenant in Puerto Rico.

If repairs are needed, you have to notify your landlord. 31 L.P.R.A. § 4056         

Your landlord is responsible to make such repairs within a reasonable amount of time and to maintain the property in the same condition as you rented it. If such repairs take more than 40 days, your rent should be reduced. 31 L.P.R.A. § 4051, 31 L.P.R.A. § 4055.

Your landlord cannot evict you without formal court proceedings. The landlord has to fill out all of the necessary paperwork and take you to court. 32 L.P.R.A.

Unfortunately, you cannot force a landlord to do anything. But, it is always better to know your basic tenant rights in this situation; it’s one less thing to worry about trying to figure out. And while it is hard to leave a place you consider home, don’t ever forget how strong you are—you survived a hurricane. You have the strength to make a new place your home.