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Puerto Rico to get $18.5 billion to rebuild shattered housing market

SAN JUAN (Reuters) - Puerto Rico will receive $18.5 billion from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to help rebuild its battered housing stock and infrastructure after September’s Hurricane Maria, the island’s governor and HUD officials said on Tuesday.

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The funding for the U.S. territory was the largest grant in the history of the HUD, said HUD undersecretary Pamela Patenaude.

But the award was significantly less than the $46 billion requested by Governor Ricardo Rossello in November.

HUD is awarding a total of roughly $28 billion to nine states, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico that have been recently affected by major disasters, including Hurricanes Irma, Harvey and Maria, as well as the recent California wildfires.

The funds are part of a $90 billion disaster aid package signed by Trump in February. The Virgin Islands is set to receive $1.6 billion in HUD disaster recovery funds, a department media advisory said on Tuesday.

Rossello said at a news conference that he expected to adjust Puerto Rico’s fiscal turnaround plan to reflect the full grant. The most recent version of the plan pegged at $13 billion the amount of funds from HUD that the commonwealth expected to receive.

Puerto Rico is navigating the largest bankruptcy in U.S. government history, and the plan is meant to establish economic projections that will serve as a basis for forthcoming restructuring talks with creditors owed $120 billion in bond and pension debt.

Rossello and Patenaude made the announcement in Villa Hugo, a shantytown in Canovanas, which sustained severe damage when Maria hit the island on Sept. 20.

Villa Hugo’s 6,000 residents are squatters on government land. Most built their homes informally, and do not own title to their properties.

“Informal” construction - which can also refer to property owners who illegally subdivide their land - is thought to comprise between one-fourth and one-half of Puerto Rico’s 1.2 million homes.

The prevalence of informal housing, which often does not comply with building codes, was thought to compound damage to Puerto Rico’s housing stock when the storm hit.

The HUD funds can be used for housing, economic development and infrastructure, and could be used to help repair the island’s crippled power grid. While local authorities determine where funds will be used, HUD provides technical assistance and guidelines, Patenaude said.

Maria was a vicious blow to an already struggling island that has been in recession for more than a decade, with a poverty rate near 50 percent.

Puerto Rico now projects to receive roughly $50 billion during the next six years in federal disaster relief assistance, mostly through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, according to the government’s latest fiscal turnaround plan.

Additional reporting by Nick Brown in New York; Editing by Daniel Bases and Rosalba O’Brien