by Carlie Derouin
After a goodbye to Marla and Cecilio and the house that has been our home base for the last nine days, the group headed to Ponce to spend the day with Elizabeth Colon Riviera at Ponce Neighborhood Housing Services (NHS). Elizabeth, who worked for Ponce NHS during her service in AmeriCorps several years ago, is currently the Executive Director.
The day began with a presentation by Elizabeth to put the work Ponce NHS is doing to serve the community into context. In line with what we have been hearing from other community leaders and energy experts, Elizabeth’s presentation explained how Hurricane Maria demonstrated to many people that Puerto Rico had existing social issues that made communities more vulnerable to disaster. Ponce NHS has been working to address one of these social issues: access to affordable housing. A staff of currently nine individuals, they offer an incredible portfolio of services to support the community.
In the last year, Ponce NHS served 2,000 people, across 50 communities. They have expanded their services throughout the years as they continued to recognize the needs of Ponce not being met by other services. They provide a variety of support in four areas: housing acquisition, loans, financial literacy, and community development.
To address homelessness in Puerto Rico, Ponce NHS now has a housing acquisition, conservation, mitigation, and preservation program. This program encompasses the entire process of homeownership, from early housing counseling to post-home ownership support. As Ponce NHS is one of only seven agencies certified by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to provide housing counseling in Puerto Rico, it also provides housing counseling services to communities outside of Ponce to help the island.
Ponce NHS is certified by the National Mortgage Lending Services (NMLS) to give mortgage loans. When the organization has the capital, they are able to provide affordable loan options to families.
These programs help individuals with financial planning. This currently includes educational programs offered to youth (often seniors in high school) to talk about preventing debt through responsible financial planning.
They have a variety of programs designed around empowering individuals in the communities of Ponce. Additionally, Ponce NHS works as a liaison to help connect communities with other organizations when needed.
How does this apply to our course and energy transition?
One of the next initiatives Ponce NHS is undertaking is transitional housing. Puerto Rico lacks sufficient transitional housing to support homeless individuals in the transition to home ownership in Puerto Rico. As transitional housing spaces are an important resource to support families who fall between not needing an emergency shelter but are still not yet able to purchase a home, Ponce NHS hopes the initiative can help more families move towards home ownership. Their vision is focused on providing transitional housing that is:
Practical yet covers necessities
Located in a secure environment
Structured to provide additional services (such as housing counseling)
Powered with renewable energy sources
The afternoon of our day with Ponce NHS consisted of workshopping the transitional housing initiative at three different scales: organizational, community, and individual housing structure. The workshop was another opportunity for our class to think about how energy transition will directly impact individuals and work being done in Puerto Rican communities. Discussions from the workshop included ways transitional housing units can be organized to facilitate the building of community relationships as well as how transitional houses powered by renewable energy can aid in educating communities about their energy use and solar energy.
As we have learned from other presentations this week, education is an important part of any proposed energy transition in Puerto Rico. Through different contexts and perspectives from community leaders and energy experts, it is a recurring theme: energy transition for Puerto Rico is not just a technical problem but a socio-technical problem. In the workshop, our group thought about how community solar could be structured in a transitional housing community and how designs could incorporate incentives to decrease energy use or educate individuals about their energy use.
In addition, this day of the trip was an opportunity to consider how organizations in Puerto Rico can share knowledge to build resilience across separate communities. We have had the opportunity to learn over the two week period from a number of individuals doing excellent work to support and rebuild communities and Puerto Rico as a whole moving forward. Ponce NHS is just one example of a community-based organization with expertise (in Puerto Rico’s housing situation in their case) also looking to incorporate renewable energy in Puerto Rico’s future. RISE, our course leaders, and course participants, are also considering the university role within these contexts. How can universities be a partner in this work and leverage connections to help meet the needs of organizations and communities doing inspirational work on the ground? It’s important work, helping to match these needs while recognizing and utilizing the wealth of community knowledge that already exists.
Ponce Neighborhood Services: https://www.umnconvergencepuertorico.org/about-rise/
Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College’s Report: “The Housing Crisis in Puerto Rico and the Impact of Hurricane Maria” https://centropr.hunter.cuny.edu/sites/default/files/data_briefs/HousingPuertoRico.pdf