Half of Puerto Rico’s housing was built illegally. Then came Hurricane Maria.

Gladys Peña built a home the way many thousands of people in Puerto Rico, maybe most, did for decades: in makeshift fashion.

Every week for years, Peña, a cafeteria cook, set money aside until she had enough to buy a vacant wooden shack in a densely packed working-class barrio, a one-time squatters’ community a short stroll from the towers of San Juan’s Golden Mile financial district. She knocked down most of the flimsy house, bought building materials bit by bit and gradually built herself a concrete-block first floor with little more than a kitchen in it, and then a wooden second story topped by a corrugated zinc-metal roof.

Her builders were guys from the neighborhood. Her son salvaged a rusty steel stair from an abandoned building nearby and affixed it to the front of the tiny house so she could get from the kitchen to her second-story bedroom suite, which requires going outside. To hook up to electrical power, she took out a $2,000 bank loan.

Like virtually all her neighbors in Las Monjas, one of eight adjacent communities in the larger Caño Martín Peña enclave that’s home to 26,000 people, Peña had no blueprint for her house. No permits. No inspections. No insurance. Not even title to the land underneath it.

“This was all done without an architect,” Peña, now retired at 71 and a volunteer leader in her community organization, said. “The one who designed it was me.”

When Hurricane Maria came, Peña’s home of 22 years was battered. The zinc roof blew off and wind-driven rain poured into the interior for hours, soaking her belongings, her clothes, her bed. It flowed downstairs to her kitchen, where the water ruined her pressed-wood cabinets and the new stove and oven on which she cooked big meals to supplement her retirement income. Then came the flooding, because the community was built on former wetlands bordering a mangrove canal where water no longer flows because of heavy sedimentation and the accumulation of years of illegally dumped trash.

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Gladys Peña, member of Proyecto Enlace, in front of her damaged home near Caño Martín Peña. Pedro Portal

In Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory with an official poverty rate of 44 percent, such “informal” home construction has for generations been more the rule than the exception, in particular in towns and rural areas outside San Juan, but in extensive stretches of the capital city as well. And that is one overriding reason why Hurricane Maria caused such widespread and calamitous destruction as it raked across the length and breadth of the island on Sept. 20 last year.

Now, even as the island’s electric-power agency struggles to restore service to thousands of households still without it, authorities are starting to grapple with a post-Maria housing crisis of such daunting dimensions and complexity that it’s bound to haunt Puerto Rico long after the last power line is reconnected.

The island’s building codes are, on paper at least, the equal of Florida’s vaunted windstorm rules. But enforcement is wildly uneven, industry insiders say. Subjected to formal permit-and-inspection regimes, condo towers and extensive subdivisions for the upper-middle class that sprawl out for miles from San Juan’s urban core fared well under Maria’s punishing winds, suffering mostly minor damage.

But as much as half the housing on the island was built without permits, Puerto Rico government officials say. No one knows precisely how much of that there is, but the government’s housing secretary says it could be as much as the roughly one million legal dwellings on the island.

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Fernando Gil, Puerto Rico’s Housing Secretary, at ‘Las Gladiolas,’ a new government housing project near completion that was not affected by Hurricane Maria because of the island’s strong building code. Pedro Portal

It’s that informal construction that bore the brunt of Maria’s fury, said housing secretary Fernando Gil. There’s no full tally yet, but the numbers so far are hair-raising: 250,000 homes with major damage, 70,000 of those destroyed. By the time inspections are concluded, Gil estimates, as many as 300,000 dwellings will be determined to have suffered some degree of significant damage. So far, 1.1 million households have applied for FEMA disaster aid.

The president of the Puerto Rico builders’ association, architect Ricardo Alvarez-Díaz, says estimates put the need for new dwellings at a range of 60,000 to 90,000 units in the next five years, depending on how large the post-Maria exodus of island residents to the mainland United States turns out to be.

To rebuild the island’s housing stock will cost $31 billion, the administration of Gov. Ricardo Rosselló estimates, or nearly twice the amount needed to rebuild its devastated electrical grid. Because the commonwealth government is broke and owners of informal housing are typically poor and have neither insurance nor money to rebuild, virtually every penny would have to come from the U.S. government. FEMA expects that the Maria recovery effort will be the largest ever undertaken by the agency, a spokesman said.

Reconstruction, though, won’t be a straightforward job even if the dollars are forthcoming.

Repairing or rebuilding illegally erected dwellings to meet building codes is difficult, if not downright impossible. Many such homes are located in flood zones or unstable hillsides where rules may not allow rebuilding. And because many informally built communities originated in invasions of public or private land by squatters — often abetted by local politicians and grandfathered in after the fact — residents often have no title to their lots, which means FEMA cannot pay for repairs, though it can help them relocate.

That raises the unwelcome specter of mass uprooting of established communities, a possibility the government has yet to broach publicly but that residents and leaders of many informal neighborhoods and their supporters are already urging against. The debate seems certain to roil the island for years to come.

Gil, echoing building-industry leaders and many other island residents, said Puerto Rico can’t afford to continue tolerating or blessing illegal construction on a mass scale.

“We’re in the door to Hurricane Alley,” Gil said. “We need to rethink the way we used to do things. Everybody has the responsibility of not letting that happen again. Maria is absolutely a tough pill to swallow. We hope the federal government understands they can help and should help to make Puerto Rico better.”

But the practical obstacles to enforcing a building-code regimen are immense, Gil and others acknowledge. Some skeptics believe there’s little the island’s state and local governments can do to curb the widespread practice of informal construction, much less eliminate it.

For one thing, people whose homes have been damaged won’t wait, maybe for years, for government help. Many began rebuilding soon after the storm, salvaging materials or buying inexpensive plywood and zinc at the hardware store to jerry-build homes back together. Most poor Puerto Ricans are unlikely to pay architects or engineers to draw up plans or absorb the costs of permits or better building materials required to meet code.

Moreover, some advocates for residents of informal communities contend, it’s unfair to hold them to the letter of building regulations when government officials have at times allowed developers to build in hazardous flood zones or approved construction of substandard quality.

“There is no way that people will sit and wait in houses without a roof for a government program to come and maybe repair the roof,” said Lyvia Rodriguez, executive director of Enlace, an umbrella corporation that links together Caño Martín Peña community organizations, known collectively as G8 for the number of communities involved. “Self-construction will happen, and is happening.”

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Lyvia Rodriguez, executive director of Proyecto Enlace. Pedro Portal

Within days of Maria’s passage, said G8 leader José Caraballo Pagán, he had already nailed a new zinc roof on his home in the Barrio Obrero Marina community to replace the one the storm blew away. He said he built his two-story home — like Peña’s a wooden second story atop a concrete first floor — to replace a house his father erected in 1963 when his family first settled in.

Added Caño resident Mario Nuñez Mercado, another G8 leader: “How are you going to tell a self-help community you can’t rebuild, when the government has given permission to developers to build in places where you should not have built or the work was badly done?”

Rodriguez instead advocates a middle way, in which organizations like hers or government agencies pay architects to help residents gradually upgrade their homes, while new homes in the communities are affordably built to code. A community land trust that now owns much of the land in the G8 communities has already built a pair of permitted solar-powered prototype houses.

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Members of the G8 group, Jose Caravallo Pagan, Gladys Peña, Lyvia Rodriguez and Mario Nunez Mercado. Pedro Portal

If anchored properly, Rodriguez said, zinc roofs on wooden rafters can survive a strong storm. Several century-old wood-frame homes with zinc roofs in the nearby historic district of Miramar, for instance, escaped Maria with only minor damage.

“It’s not the material. It’s how it was built. Lots of zinc and wood roofs survived,” Rodriguez said.

Many, however, did not. Of 4,000 homes in the G8 communities, she said, 800 homes lost their roofs; 75 were a total loss and will be demolished. The well-organized, well-connected coalition was able to quickly scramble to temporarily replace lost roofs with blue tarps from FEMA.

But long-term prospects are highly uncertain.

Peña was luckier than many: Her walls held up to Maria. For two weeks afterwards, she lived in the roofless house, enduring subsequent rainstorms, until a FEMA crew secured a blue tarp over it. But with just $3,000 in savings, hardly enough to rebuild, she’s fully dependent on federal aid that’s not certain to materialize.

Like most of her neighbors, Peña wants to rebuild in place. Because her home falls well short of the island’s building codes, though, it’s unclear whether it qualifies for reconstruction aid. Like many, she now fears being displaced. Because the land trust does hold title to the land, the hope is aid will begin flowing soon.

“The plan is to restore the casita,” she said. “That the community remains and does not disappear.”

But in many of the island’s numerous informal communities, in particular those outside of relatively prosperous San Juan, circumstances are dire.

Maria uncovered a badly hidden reality on the island: Puerto Rico is a sharply unequal society. Much of its population is poor — dirt-poor by U.S. mainland standards — and living in hazardous housing of appalling quality, sometimes in isolated pockets. Illegal housing construction to the extent found on the island would not be countenanced on the mainland United States, critics say.

“This is the true face of the country,” said José Sánchez, a graduate student in social work at the University of Puerto Rico, as he visited the ruins of Villa Esperanza, a hillside community of rustic wood homes in Toa Alta, a semi-rural municipality on the far western fringe of San Juan’s sprawling metro area.

Hurricane Maria dismantled nearly every one of 130 homes in Villa Esperanza, founded seven years ago when a group of locals desperate for affordable places to live took over a former sugarcane field owned by the island’s land authority. The community organized, fending off efforts to evict them and eventually reaching a five-year lease agreement with the government under which each family pays $35 rent a month. Electrical power is “borrowed,” one community leader acknowledged euphemistically.

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An ‘irregular’ house not built according to Puerto Rico codes in Villa Esperanza. It was damaged by Hurricane Maria. Pedro Portal

Maria’s winds sent a twister through the community, residents say, curling steel support girders at an adjacent baseball stadium into pretzels. Just 60 families remain in Villa Esperanza, but they’re determined to stay. Some have already begun raising their fallen houses back up.

But residents are increasingly desperate, saying FEMA workers have told them they won’t pay to rebuild because the homes can’t meet code. In the meantime, they’re depending on churches and charities for water and food deliveries. Most who had jobs, mainly in construction and security, have lost them because many local businesses have been unable to reopen after the storm.

“We lost everything,” said María Hernández Collazo, one of the settlement’s founders, adding that her house, a “little box” she made from salvaged wood, collapsed in the storm. “I’m a person who lives alone and I’ve already had to battle a lot to survive.”

Said community president Jorge Olivo: “It’s like starting from zero again and with no resources.”

Unpermitted construction like that found in Villa Esperanza is especially prevalent outside the principal towns and urban centers of the island’s 78 municipalities, driven by deep poverty and a severe, decades-long shortage of formal housing options. Local authorities and politicians have long looked the other way as people built homes any way they could — often even aiding them by offering building materials and other construction assistance in exchange for votes at election time.

In decades past, the island government could offer thousands of people living in substandard homes or informal communities a place in federally funded public housing projects that sprung up across Puerto Rico after World War II amid a population explosion. But the housing crunch grew only more acute when federal housing funding dried up in the 1980s. Because most housing projects were solidly built, they stood up well to Hurricane Maria, but many are troubled by concentrated poverty and crime and thus seen by many as undesirable places to live.

So acute was the need for cheap or affordable housing on the island that unpermitted construction plagues even legally built subdivisions. Homeowners built often flimsy illegal additions, especially second stories made of little more than plywood or zinc and aluminum, to accommodate married children or elderly parents. Those suffered extensive damage during Maria.

Down the hills from Toa Alta, the low-lying municipality of Toa Baja was among the hardest hit on the island. Once a center of cattle ranching and sugarcane fields and refineries strung along the Atlantic Ocean coast, the municipality — home to Puerto Rico’s first mass-built single-family subdivisions, the sprawling 1960s Levittown — today serves largely as a bedroom community for San Juan.

As its agriculture industry collapsed, Toa Baja became a center of rampant unpermitted home construction. Families desperate for inexpensive housing invaded former ranches and sugar plantations and, over decades, built crazy-quilt communities along twisting streets that resemble typical suburban subdivisions, but consist of unpermitted homes of widely varying quality.

Because much of Toa Baja consists of an alluvial plain bordered on two sides by rivers and criss-crossed by old irrigation canals, it’s particularly prone to flooding. That this is a hazard was known for at least a couple of hundred years. The church in the historic Spanish town, founded on a riverbank in 1745, turns its back on the main plaza. That’s because the plaza had to be moved farther upland early on because of persistent flooding.

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The wrecked home of Keyla and Jose Vazquez in Toa Baja, Puerto Rico. Pedro Portal

Though municipal authorities managed to keep some extensive swaths of the most flood-prone land free of construction, invaders built in some of the most vulnerable areas. So did some developers who got a municipal OK to build in years past, current Toa Baja officials say.

Maria, which exited the island across the north coast just west of Toa Baja, thus brought the municipio a deadly double whammy of destruction by wind and water. Hours of heavy rainfall totaling 43 inches swelled the rivers and irrigation canals, heavily sedimented and undredged for years, forcing authorities to open a gate on the Rio de la Plata dam with little warning to tens of thousands of residents downstream.

The water from the overflowing waterways ran into a wall of water from ocean storm surge coming in the other direction, producing a deep flood that reached the rooflines of single-story homes and persisted for days. Some 13,000 homes were damaged by flooding and 4,000 by wind, totaling more than half the occupied dwellings in the municipality of 90,000 people, administrators say. More than 2,000 people were rescued from rooftops, and at least nine perished. Damage to property and the municipality, which lost use of its six-story city hall building because of wind damage and rainwater incursion, is around $250 million, Toa Baja Mayor Bernardo “Betito” Márquez García said.

In the informal community of Barrio Ingenio, named in reference to a long-vanished sugar refinery, Lissette Rolón and her family lost nearly everything when the waters suddenly rose. Rolón lived in a wood house built not long ago without permits and close to the ground in her mother’s back yard. Her mother Nilda Marrero’s house, a concrete structure elevated on concrete-block stilts, was informally built around 2004.

Maria partly tore off Marrero’s zinc roof, letting rainwater in. Floodwaters reached the floor slab of the home’s second story, claiming the family’s old minivan underneath, and it filled Rolón’s house, destroying its contents. Tears welled up in Rolón’s eyes as she recalled rushing up to her mother’s house with her small children as the waters rapidly rose. As she spoke, two months after the storm, everything she owned lay in a heap in the street.

Rolón and Marrero said they knew full well they were living in a flood zone. But the younger woman said city hall helped her erect her unpermitted home by providing her building materials.

“The problem was our budget. That’s why we built low,” Rolón said, alluding to the cost of elevating a home. “We knew this was going to flood someday. But we were not prepared. None of us anticipated something to this level.”

Neither she nor her mother have any plans to go elsewhere, saying they have no alternative but to stay.

Márquez García, who in an electoral surprise shortly before Maria ousted a longtime mayor accused of corruption and misspending, blames the extent of damage in the municipality on decades of poor planning, disregard of development regulations and patronage that fostered illegal construction.

“At the end of the road, it’s lack of planning and controls,” he said. “The impact of Maria is that now we have to rethink where we were and where we’re going. The other thing Maria brought is awareness. After suffering what we have suffered, I haven’t the least doubt that people are very receptive to education about doing things differently.

“It’s for their safety first of all. That attitude of ‘I know how to build, I don’t need plans,’ that has to change now.”

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Bernardo Marquez, mayor of Toa Baja, talks in front of the government building that closed down due to damage by Hurricane Maria. Pedro Portal

Reconstruction, he noted, must go hand in hand with better land planning and a change of culture among authorities as well as residents. And none of that will happen without extensive federal aid, he added.

It’s not for lack of knowledge of proper construction, though.

Puerto Rico has a long tradition of sturdy building, dating back hundreds of years to the massive fortresses, city walls and military structures erected by Spain, and the 19th century brick townhomes that define Old San Juan, the city’s well-preserved Colonial core. With industrialization in the 1950s came widespread construction of homes of reinforced concrete blocks and poured concrete roofs for the middle and upper-middle classes.

Since Hurricane Georges struck the island in 1998, Puerto Rico has twice beefed up its building code, which now calls for structures to stand up to wind gusts of up to 145 mph. But relatively little has been built to that standard, which went into effect in 2011, in the middle of a deep recession that all but halted major development. A study concluded that 65 percent of legally permitted dwellings on the island were built before 1980, when a weaker code with a 115-mph windstorm standard was in place, building association president Alvarez-Díaz said.

Still, he and other industry figures said, legally built construction generally fared well during Maria, proof that the island’s construction industry and its building codes are fully up to the job of producing homes and buildings that will endure a major storm.

Just before Maria hit, Interlink, one of the biggest construction and development firms in Puerto Rico, had completed a full rehab of a 1965 Howard Johnson hotel on San Juan’s Condado beach strip. The conversion into an affordable-chic AC Hotel meant new doors and windows manufactured to Miami-Dade County’s strict hurricane product standards, as well as two generators, said Interlink president Federico Sánchez.

The hotel suffered largely cosmetic damage and did not lose a single day of business in the storm’s aftermath, Sánchez said. It was much the same story at a glass-enclosed high-rise condo Interlink recently built in nearby Miramar, also using Miami-Dade approved products, he said.

“Given the strength of Maria, structures held up pretty well. In general, contractors, developers and the building industry have been responsible. Those that were not got exposed,” Sánchez said.

Maria has given rise to calls from some Puerto Rico legislators to strengthen windstorm standards even more. But critics argue that will only inflate construction costs and, counterproductively, lead to even more illegal construction.

Instead, they say, the focus should be on increasing enforcement, both to curb informal building and also on some unscrupulous developers. Because inspections are conducted by private consultants, not the government, some developers get away with substandard work, Alvarez-Diáz said.

“The problem in Puerto Rico is not the codes. It’s implementation,” he said. “Where did you build it? Was it a flood zone. How did you build it? Did you build it legally or illegally? Then you have projects that are very well designed, but owners cut corners and build whatever they want.”

Granted, even some well-built structures were no match for Maria’s winds, howling at 155 mph as a Cat 4 when the storm hit the southeastern coast of the island, far exceeding even current standards.

In Humacao, the east coast’s principal municipality, located just north of the storm’s entry point, the damage weeks afterward was still stunning. Commercial malls, including a Jeep dealership, were completely gutted. Glass windows blew out at the villas at the luxury Palmas del Mar resort community, though the structures stood up. On the road to the fishing village of Punta Salinas in Humacao, Maria’s wind was so potent that rows of thick concrete power poles were snapped in half.

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Visitors and fishermen stand on the Playa Punta Santiago pier in Humacao, Puerto Rico that was destroyed by Hurricane Maria, on Sunday, Dec. 03, 2017. Pedro Portal

Of the Punta Salinas pier — the center of the village’s small-scale commercial fishing industry and an attraction for weekend visitors from the area — only the steel supports remained. Most of the decking was gone.

Even more devastating, locals said, was the damage to aging, ramshackle homes in the village and nearby towns, hit both by storm surge and wind. But a group of neighbors playing dominoes on the near-desolate Punta Salinas beach, usually crowded on a Sunday, scoffed at the notion that homes in the area would be rebuilt to a higher standard.

Maria swept away jobs, as well, they noted, making it even less likely that anyone could afford to build any differently.

“Of the wood houses, there was nothing left,” said Sara Hernández, from neighboring Las Piedras. “Labor is expensive. Materials are expensive. If they give you $5,000, what are you going to do? Rebuild with wood. There is no work. There are no resources. We’re only going to be even poorer now.”

Advocates say rebuilding doesn’t have to be an either-or proposition. Instead, some are urging a gradual approach given that many in the island’s poorest communities remain in desperate need of shelter.

“You can’t expect a successful, immediate rebuild,” said Jonathan Marvel, a Puerto Rico-born architect who practices in New York and San Juan and has helped spearhead a campaign to equip local community centers around the island with solar generators after Maria. “You have to allow people to band-aid what they have in place, and then plan for a rebuild in a year or two in a much better place.”

Marvel said Puerto Rico already has several potential models, including a successful relocation effort following a devastating 1985 mudslide in the southern city of Ponce that killed some 130 people. About 1,000 survivors living in the most dangerous zone were provided new housing nearby. Habitat for Humanity has built homes in Cantera, one of the G8 neighborhoods in San Juan.

Enlace and the Caño Martín Peña land trust have been working for years on one of the most ambitious grass-roots schemes on the island. The land trust, winner of a major United Nationals award, owns some 200 acres, allowing residents to legally buy and sell homes — but not the land underneath — as well as to qualify for bank financing.

The communities, whose origins date to the 1930s, when peasants began moving to San Juan from the mountains, were built on the edges of a mangrove-ringed canal that connects San Juan Bay to a large lagoon.

The organizations have won approval for a major dredging project to lessen flooding, and in preparation purchased and demolished homes along the canal just before Maria struck, finding homes for those displaced nearby.

Displaced people don’t need to go far, Marvel noted. The reconstruction effort could also help repopulate historic town centers, many of which lost residents over the decades, by relocating people living in hazardous locations, he said. New housing could be built on land already owned by the municipalities and the state government, reducing costs and providing residents with public services that are already in place.

“We have to find the land,” Marvel said. “It’s not Utopian. It’s practical.”

Just a stone’s throw from Gladys Peña’s improvised home in Las Monjas, the Puerto Rico government has just unveiled a new housing model that, even before Maria, officials hoped could help relieve the island’s perennial housing crisis.

On the site of Las Gladiolas, a notoriously crime-plagued high-rise housing project that was imploded in 2011, the government’s housing authority, in partnership with a developer, has built a mixed-income townhouse community that includes both subsidized and full market-rate units. Monthly rents in the Mediterranean-style Renaissance Square range from $400 to $900.

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Contractors work on final details at ‘Las Gladiolas,’ a new government housing project close to being finished in Hato Rey in San Juan, on Friday, Dec. 01, 2017. Pedro Portal

Gil, the housing secretary, says Renaissance Square shows it’s possible for Puerto Rico to build housing that’s safe, attractive and within reach of people with low incomes. On a tour of the complex just as it neared completion, he and Alvarez-Diaz, who designed it, emphasized that damage from Maria was minimal.

With just 140 units, though, Gil acknowledged, it’s just a drop in the bucket. But it’s a model Gil says will be replicated across the island. His agency is preparing requests for new proposals this year.

Renaissance Square’s urban-friendly layout includes a main street that leads directly to Las Monjas. The street ends at a concrete wall that forms an abrupt border to the teeming Caño Martín Peña communities.

On the other side, just yards from the wall, Pena can only dream of living in a place like that.