By Cristy Lytal
PhD candidate Raúl Santiago-Bartolomei is bringing home the lessons of the USC Price School of Public Policy. A native of Puerto Rico, Santiago-Bartolomei is working at the Center for New Economy, a San Juan-based think tank, to foster the island’s recovery from Hurricane Maria, which caused massive destruction and loss of life in September 2017.
“I’m Puerto Rican,” said Santiago-Bartolomei, who is a research associate at the center. “I was born here. I was raised here. I was here during the hurricane. So I saw the impact. I helped keep track of the federal response, how it was going, what has been the discussion regarding Congress, how that has translated into how the reconstruction was set up on the island. And this is basically going to determine the future for the island in many ways.”
To inform this post-hurricane reconstruction process, Santiago-Bartolomei is focusing his energies on a housing initiative. The goal is to bring together different groups and organizations working on housing issues in order to create a comprehensive framework to guide research, advocacy, planning and public policy.
As part of this initiative, Santiago-Bartolomei helped organize a housing conference on Feb. 8 in San Juan with 128 attendees, including representatives from the US Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the Puerto Rico Department of Housing, the Puerto Rico Planning Board and other key agencies. Other attendees hailed from legal advocacy groups, community-based organizations and the real estate development sector.
“For a topic like that, 128 people is the Coachella of housing conferences!” said Santiago-Bartolomei.
Keynote speakers included Price School Associate Prof. and Director, Spatial Analysis Lab Annette Kim and Enrique Silva from the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy.
“We wanted to have speakers from abroad to talk about their own research in different contexts, not addressing Puerto Rico directly,” said Santiago-Bartolomei. “And then we would have a panel of local experts that would react to that and see if there were ideas that were applicable to Puerto Rico. And it was great. The feedback was that there was a lot of value from this experience.”
Kim shared her research about informal settlements, a topic of great relevance to Puerto Rico. She described how satellite mapping technologies can fail to recognize informal settlements, thus creating official maps that exclude these vulnerable communities and ultimately prevent them from receiving government resources and services. Kim recently published an article on the topic in The Atlantic.
“There’s a danger of coming in top down and assuming that things are like they are in the mainland, when they are not,” said Kim. “Sixty percent of Puerto Rican households don’t have titles. So you can’t ask for that as proof for receiving government funds.”
This lack of property titles led FEMA to reject the majority of applications for individual assistance following the hurricane, worsening the humanitarian crisis on the island.
In addition to the conversation about land tenure and informal settlements, the conference attendees discussed the need for housing that is affordable, safe, durable, appropriately designed and located in non-hazardous areas. Santiago-Bartolomei served as a moderator for these discussions, which took place in both English and Spanish.
Santiago-Bartolomei and his colleagues at the Center for a New Economy are now writing up the proceedings of the conference to distribute to those who attended as well as other key players in the housing reconstruction.
Santiago-Bartolomei credits USC Price with providing him with the training needed to make a meaningful impact in the housing policy conversation in Puerto Rico.
“The Price School has definitely been formative,” he said. “I wouldn’t be able to do what I’m currently doing on the island without the training that I’ve had at USC—the mentorship from Annette Kim and my advisor Prof. Marlon Boarnet and a whole host of different professors that were key in providing me with the tools to address many of these issues.”
According to Kim, it’s essential for USC Price to invest in training next-generation policy leaders who already have deep roots in their local communities.
“To do development work responsibly and effectively, you can’t just fly in from the outside,” she said. “And so it’s so wonderful to have our graduates who are local and in there with a long-term commitment to try to bring their professional education to help their own communities.”
Director, Spatial Analysis Lab (SLAB)