Lantern-waving Hong Kong protesters take to hills, as leader pledges housing reform

By Jessie Pang and Lukas Job

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters took to the hills to form flashlight-carrying human chains on Friday, using the colorful Mid-Autumn Festival as a backdrop to the latest in more than three months of sometimes violent unrest.

The peaceful protests, on a day when families traditionally gather to gaze at the moon and eat mooncakes while children swing colorful lanterns from the end of sticks, came after Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam promised to focus on housing and jobs to try to end the turmoil.

Lam, who said she caused “unforgivable havoc” by igniting the crisis and would quit if she had the choice, said in a Facebook post her government would increase the supply of housing in the Chinese-ruled city.

“Housing and people’s livelihoods are the main priorities,” Lam said. “The government will add to housing supply measures which will be continuously put in place and not missed.”

Hong Kong has some of the world’s most expensive real estate and many young people say the city’s housing policy is unfair, benefiting the rich while forcing the less well-off to live with their parents or rent “shoe box” apartments at exorbitant prices.

Sun Hung Kai Properties, which reported its earnings on Thursday, said the current unrest was a wake-up call to both the government and private companies to build more housing.

Financial Secretary Paul Chan told reporters a new vacancy tax aims to push developers to launch completed apartments on to the market as soon as possible.

As darkness fell on Friday night, protesters armed with flashlights, mobile phones and lanterns gathered at Victoria Peak and Lion Rock.

They lined the path running along the north face of the Peak, looking across the harbor to Lion Rock in the distance, with mainland China beyond.

Protesters gathered in their hundreds across the territory, singing and chanting, in contrast to the violence of many previous weekends when police have responded with tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannon.

“Today, there’s not many here because we have an event in every district, and because this area is not a residential area, it’s a working area full of offices,” said protester Jason Liu in the Admiralty district of government offices and hotels.

The spark for the protests was a now-withdrawn extradition bill and concerns that Beijing is eroding civil liberties, but many young protesters are also angry at sky-high living costs and a lack of job prospects.

The demonstrations started in June in response to a bill that would have allowed people to be sent to mainland China for trial in Communist Party-controlled courts, but have broadened into calls for greater democracy.

The former British colony returned to China in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” formula that guarantees freedoms not enjoyed on the mainland – including a much-cherished independent legal system.

At lunch on Friday, hundreds of pro-Beijing supporters packed into a shopping mall waving China flags and singing the Chinese national anthem.

Sit-ins at shopping malls are also planned over the weekend.

Activists also plan to gather outside the British consulate on Sunday to demand that China honors the Sino-British Joint Declaration that was signed in 1984, laying out Hong Kong’s post-1997 future.

China says Hong Kong is now its internal affair. It denies meddling in Hong Kong and has accused the United States, Britain and others of fomenting the unrest.

Britain says it has a legal responsibility to ensure China abides by its obligations under the Joint Declaration.

Hong Kong is facing its first recession in a decade as a result of the unrest. A surge in migration applications suggests more locals are making plans to leave.

China has called on its biggest state firms to take a more active role in Hong Kong, including stepping up investment and asserting more control over companies.

Multiple Hong Kong events and conferences have been canceled and the number of visitors plunged 40 percent in August. The city’s premier women’s tennis event scheduled for October has been postponed.

Organizers also called off the Royal Shakespeare Company’s “Matilda the Musical”, due to run from Sept. 20 to Oct. 20.

Police on Tuesday set up an “anti-violence hotline” on which people could call in giving intelligence on planned unrest.

On Friday they announced it had been shut down because of “different opinions”.

(Reporting by Twinnie Siu, Clare Jim, Noah Sin, Marius Zaharia, Poppy McPherson, Lukas Job, Amr Abdallah and Farah Master; Writing by Nick Macfie; Editing by Giles Elgood and Alex Richardson)

Texas shale towns grapple with growth as oil-bust fears fade

FILE PHOTO: A sign soliciting applicants is seen outside of a truck stop in Midland, Texas, U.S., February 13, 2019. REUTERS/Nick Oxford

By Jennifer Hiller

ODESSA, TEXAS (Reuters) – In west Texas, the center of the U.S. oil boom, about 3,800 students at Permian High School are crammed into a campus designed for 2,500, with 20 portable buildings to help with the overflow.

School officials had expected enrollment to fall after the last oil price crash, starting in 2014, but it kept rising – one sign of a growing resilience in the region’s oil economy as Exxon Mobil, Chevron and other majors continue pouring billions of dollars into long-term investments here.

For most of the last century, oil money has flowed into this region like a rising tide during booms – but residents here had enough sense to know it would flow right back out again when the next bust hit. That cycle has always made officials, developers and voters wary of investing too much during the good times on everything from school construction to roads to housing.

That hesitance is fading fast as oil majors make ever-larger and longer-term commitments to drill in the Permian Basin and residents grow weary of traffic jams on once-rural roads, long waits for medical appointments, pricey housing and overcrowded schools. Local governments, industry and foundations are joining forces to tackle the region’s overwhelmed infrastructure and public services.

“When you have more students, you need more teachers,” said Danny Gex, principal at the Odessa school, which was made famous as the home of the Permian Panthers football team in the book and screen adaptations of “Friday Night Lights.”

Texas has a statewide teacher shortage, Gex said, and “when you’re in a desert, it makes it a lot more difficult to find them.”

Also in severe shortage: housing. The median price of a home in Midland, $311,000 in April, was higher than any other Texas city except the hip tech-industry hub of Austin, according to data tracked by Texas A&M University.

(For a graphic comparing Midland home prices to the rest of Texas, see: https://tmsnrt.rs/2Zd7YIS )

Former convenience store manager Ruben Garcia came to the region and now earns $2,000 to $2,500 a week hauling sand to fracking sites. But he had to sleep in his truck until he could find an RV to rent.

“I had to go where the money is, and the money is here,” Garcia said.

The city of Midland, the local hospital district and other employers are considering banding together to build apartments for workers, said Jerry Morales, mayor of Midland, the de facto capital of the Permian. In neighboring Odessa, the school district has considered buying a hotel to house new teachers.

“That’s crazy to even think that,” said Gex, the principal.

STAYING POWER

The oil industry, of course, still has its ups and downs, like any business involving global commodities subject to rapid market shifts.

Some of the smaller producers that pioneered shale drilling in the Permian, such as Concho Resources, Laredo Petroleum and Whiting Petroleum, are downshifting as West Texas oil prices have lost 16% and natural gas has tumbled 36% over the past year.

But the world’s biggest oil majors are increasingly taking control of the Texas shale business, and their drilling plans – sometimes sketched out in decades rather than years – are envisioned to withstand the usual price drops.

That means they will need to lure more staff to live permanently with their families in cities such as Midland and Odessa, rather than depending on “man camps” for transient roughnecks or relying on temporary worker-training schemes.

In Midland, a group of local foundations started by wealthy area families, as well as a consortium of energy firms, recently put up $38.5 million to finance 14 tuition-free charter schools to relieve the stress on local classrooms.

“The mindset is changing,” said Mayor Morales. “There are those who understand we’re growing and we need these things.”

But it’s a scramble to catch up: “We’re behind, because we never invested in ourselves.”

On the New Mexico side of the Permian, local governments, schools and foundations joined together to build a $63 million sports complex with a water park in Hobbs. Hotel taxes from visiting energy workers will pay part of the facility’s operating costs, said Hobbs Mayor Sam Cobb.

Hobbs’ next proposal involves a $60 million vocational high school that would help turn out welders, electricians and other skilled blue-collar workers. Oil firm executives will consult on the curriculum by offering insight into the skills they need in new hires, he said.

“I think there’s more sustainability because all of the supermajors have come back into the area,” Cobb said.

While many local officials and civic leaders say the region has permanently left its boom-and-bust cycle behind, others remain wary. Alan Herig arrived in Midland in 1977 to sell oilfield equipment and later opened an office supply store. He went from flying to Houston for steak lunches to painting houses after oil prices crashed.

“Midland became a ghost town,” said Herig, who now owns three hotels in the area and believes hard times could come again any day.

Still, Herig understands why city officials and civic groups are scrambling to upgrade local infrastructure and services.

“Midland is way behind,” Herig said. “They need to invest.”

ORANGE BUCKETS AND FOLDING TABLES

The latest shale boom, which started about three years ago, has brought jobs and wealth but also many hassles to day-to-day life.

Midland resident and energy executive Kaes Van’t Hof had a hard time scheduling an eye-doctor’s appointment for new contacts before his wedding earlier this year.

“Simple things have to be planned far in advance here,” Van’t Hof said.

Max Campos, a tattoo artist who lives in Odessa, recently sold his motorcycle after concluding it was no longer safe to ride alongside heavy truck traffic.

Odessa, a city of 120,000 people, drew unwanted attention last year after a school teacher equipped a classroom with orange buckets and folding tables because of a lack of chairs and desks. The school found tables after photos of students using the makeshift furniture went viral online.

Several groups have formed to bring change to the region, and local officials are finding that voters are more receptive to approving new spending on services such as schools and roads.

Priority Midland – a long-range planning initiative formed this year by officials in government, business and philanthropy – plans get-out-the-vote efforts to press for increased school financing and a possible sales tax hike to pay for hospital services or improved roads, Morales said.

The Permian Strategic Partnership, a group of 20 energy companies operating in the area, promises to spend $100 million to promote training, education, health care, housing and roads. The partnership chipped in $16.5 million for the charter school initiative, which will open its first campus in August 2020 and plans to offer public education to 10,000 students over time.

One member of the organization is Travis Stice, chief executive at Midland’s Diamondback Energy, which has been among the Permian’s fast-growing firms.

It’s time for the community, he said, to trust that the oil industry is here to stay.

“We’ve allowed ourselves to be rangebound by thinking: ‘Don’t invest during the boom time because the bust time is coming,'” Stice said.

(Graphic: How shale booms affect Midland, Texas, home prices link: https://editdata.thomsonreuters.com/#/portal/groups/editorcharts).

(Reporting by Jennifer Hiller in west Texas; Editing by Gary McWilliams and Brian Thevenot)

U.S. new home sales hit seven-month high; services sector rebounds

FILE PHOTO: A real estate sign advertising a new home for sale is pictured in Vienna, Virginia, U.S. October 20, 2014. REUTERS/Larry Downing

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Sales of new U.S. single-family homes rose to a seven-month high in December, but November’s outsized jump was revised lower, pointing to continued weakness in the housing market.

Other data on Tuesday showed an acceleration in growth in the vast services sector in February, powered by a surge in new orders. But hiring appeared to be slowing, with a measure of services industries employment dropping to a six-month low.

The moderation in the pace of hiring fits in with expectations of slower economic growth as the stimulus from a $1.5 trillion tax cut and increased government spending ebbs. The economy’s outlook is also being clouded by slowing growth in China and Europe.

The Commerce Department said new home sales increased 3.7 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 621,000 units, the highest level since May 2018. November’s sales pace was revised down to 599,000 units from the previously reported 657,000 units.

Economists polled by Reuters had forecast new home sales, which account for about 11.2 percent of housing market sales, falling 8.7 percent to a pace of 600,000 units in December.

New home sales are drawn from permits and tend to be volatile on a month-to-month basis. They fell 2.4 percent from a year ago. Single-family home sales rose 1.5 percent in 2018.

The release of the December report was delayed by a five-week partial shutdown of the federal government that ended on Jan. 25.

The housing market hit a soft patch last year amid higher mortgage rates, expensive lumber as well as land and labor shortages, which led to tight inventories and less affordable homes. Reports last month showed homebuilding dropping to more than a two-year trough in December and home resales in January hitting their lowest level since November 2015.

Though house price inflation has slowed and mortgage rates are hovering at 12-month lows, economists expect the housing market to remain weak for a while because of persistent land and labor shortages. Investment in homebuilding contracted 0.2 percent in 2018, the weakest performance since 2010.

The soft housing data added to weak December construction spending, retail sales, factory orders, exports and business spending plans on equipment in setting the economy on a slower growth path in the first quarter.

SERVICES INDUSTRIES HUMMING

Despite the anticipated first-quarter weakness, the economy’s fundamentals remain favorable. In a separate report on Tuesday, the Institute for Supply Management (ISM) said its non-manufacturing activity index increased 3.0 points to a reading of 59.7 last month.

A reading above 50 indicates expansion in the sector, which accounts for more than two-thirds of U.S. economic activity. January’s drop in the services sector index was largely blamed on financial market volatility and the government shutdown.

The ISM’s new orders sub-index for the services sector surged 7.5 points to a reading of 65.2 last month, the highest level since August 2005. But the survey’s services industry employment measure fell 2.6 points to 55.2 in February, the weakest reading since June 2018.

U.S. Treasury yields jumped after the ISM report, while U.S. stocks pared losses. The U.S. dollar was trading slightly higher against a basket of currencies. The Commerce Department report showed new home sales in the South, which accounts for the bulk of transactions, increased 5.0 percent to a seven-month high in December.

Sales rose 1.4 percent in the West and jumped 44.8 percent in the Northeast. But they fell 15.3 percent in the Midwest to their lowest level since April 2016.

The median new house price fell 7.2 percent to $318,600 in December from a year ago. There were 344,000 new homes on the market in December, the most since December 2008 and up 3.0 percent from November. Supply is, however, just over half of what it was at the peak of the housing market boom in 2006.

At December’s sales pace it would take 6.6 months to clear the supply of houses on the market, down from 6.7 months in November. Just under two-thirds of the houses sold last month were either under construction or yet to be built.

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Paul Simao)

U.S. mortgage requests rise as loan rates hold near 10-month low: MBA

A view of single family homes for sale in San Marcos, California October 25, 2013. PROPERTY REUTERS/Mike Blake

(Reuters) – U.S. mortgage applications increased for the first time in five weeks as most home borrowing costs hovered near their lowest in 10 months, the Mortgage Bankers Association said on Wednesday.

The Washington-based industry group said its seasonally adjusted gauge of loan requests to buy a home and to refinance one rose 3.6 percent to 365.3 in the week ended Feb. 15. The prior week’s reading was the lowest in a month.

“Mortgage rates held steady on mixed economic news, as core inflation remained firm, while retail sales in December were much weaker than expected. However, overall application activity picked up over the week,” Joel Kan, MBA’s associate vice president of industry surveys and forecasts, said in a statement.

Interest rates on 30-year fixed-rate mortgages with conforming loan balances of $484,350 or less ticked up to 4.66 percent from the prior week’s 4.65 percent, which was the lowest since March 2, 2018.

U.S. Treasury yields, which are benchmarks for most mortgages, rose last week as underlying inflation trends remained intact and traders reduced their safe-haven bond holdings on optimism that China and the United States would resolve their trade conflict.

The other mortgage rates that MBA tracks were unchanged to 8 basis points higher on the week.

“Most rates remained close to 10-month lows, which allowed some borrowers with an incentive to refinance to capitalize,” Kan said.

The group’s seasonally adjusted barometer on home refinancing requests rose 6.4 percent to 1,084.4.

The refinance share of total mortgage applications was 41.7 percent last week, compared with 41.8 percent the prior week.

MBA’s seasonally adjusted gauge on applications to buy a home, which is seen as a proxy on future housing activity, climbed 1.7 percent at 232.7 last week.

(Reporting by Richard Leong in New York; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe)

U.S. consumer confidence at 18-year high; house price gains slow

FILE PHOTO - A home for sale is seen in Santa Monica, California, U.S., March 21, 2017. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. consumer confidence rose to an 18-year high in October, driven largely by a robust labor market, bolstering expectations that strong economic growth would continue through early 2019.

But a weakening housing market and tightening financial market conditions are casting a shadow on the economic expansion that is in its ninth year, the second longest on record. Home price gains slowed further in August, other data showed, another sign that higher mortgage rates were weighing on housing demand.

“We don’t know how long this is going to hold up, but the consumer is bullish on the outlook and this means the economy is going to continue to advance in this long economic expansion from the last recession,” said Chris Rupkey, chief economist at MUFG in New York.

The Conference Board said its consumer confidence index reading rose to 137.9 this month, the highest since September 2000, from a downwardly revised 135.3 in September. Economists polled by Reuters had forecast the consumer index slipping to 136.0 from the previously reported 138.4 in September.

Consumers’ assessment of current business and labor market conditions improved despite a sharp stock market sell-off and jump in U.S. Treasury yields, which have tightened financial market conditions. The stock market’s S&P 500 index has dropped more than 8 percent this month.

The Conference Board survey puts more emphasis on the labor market. The survey’s so-called labor market differential, derived from data about respondents saying jobs are scarce or plentiful, was the most favorable since January 2001.

This measure closely correlates to the unemployment rate in the Labor Department’s employment report. Economists said it raised the possibility that the unemployment rate could drop further from a near 49-year low of 3.7 percent. The government will publish its October employment report on Friday.

“At the end of the day, it is the job market, or the security of having a job with a regular paycheck, that supports confidence and spending,” said Jennifer Lee, a senior economist at BMO Capital Markets in Toronto. “So far, so good.”

Consumer confidence at multi-year highs bodes well for spending in the upcoming holiday season. More consumers planned to buy automobiles and houses over the next six months, but the share of those intending to purchase major appliances slipped.

The dollar was near a 2 1/2-month high against a basket of currencies, while stocks on Wall Street were higher. U.S. Treasury yields rose.

HOUSING DEMAND SOFTENING

The economy grew at a 3.5 percent annualized rate in the third quarter and is considered on course to achieve the Trump administration’s target of 3.0 percent annual growth this year.

Growth has been spurred by a $1.5 trillion tax cut. Economists estimate the tax cut stimulus peaked in the third quarter and expect growth to gradually slow from the second half of 2019, restrained in part by higher interest rates.

The Federal Reserve has increased borrowing costs three times this year and in September removed a reference to monetary policy remaining “accommodative” from its policy statement. The U.S. central bank is expected raise rates gain in December.

Higher borrowing costs have cooled housing demand; sales and homebuilding declined in September.

A separate report on Tuesday showed the S&P CoreLogic Case-Shiller composite home price index of 20 U.S. metropolitan areas rose 5.5 percent in August from a year ago after increasing 5.9 percent in July. Growth in house prices has slowed from as high as 6.8 percent in March. Prices had been boosted by a shortage of properties on the market, but now mortgage rates have risen to seven-year highs.

“The sharp gain in mortgage rates thus far in 2018 continues to weigh on home sales as well as home prices,” said Brent Campbell, an economist at Moody’s Analytics in West Chester, Pennsylvania.

“With the Fed continuing to tighten monetary policy through the rest of 2018 and into 2019, mortgage rates are likely to rise, even more, resulting in less housing demand and modest house price growth in 2019.”

(Reporting By Lucia Mutikani; Editing by David Gregorio)

No vacancy: Housing crisis dogs Florida Keys months after Irma

Terri Metter, 50, and her Boston Terrier Nikki stand in front of a debris-filled canal in the RV park where she has been living in a FEMA trailer since November 2017, in Marathon, Florida, U.S., June 10, 2018. REUTERS/Zach Fagenson

By Zachary Fagenson

MARATHON, Fla. (Reuters) – For eight months Terri Metter has made her home in a government trailer parked along a debris-clogged canal in the Florida Keys and she considers herself lucky since Hurricane Irma forced many of her former neighbors to move off the once-idyllic archipelago.

Terri Metter and her Boston Terrier Nikki overlook what's left of destroyed trailers that fill a canal near a trailer park in Marathon, Florida, U.S., June 10, 2018. REUTERS/Zach Fagenson

Terri Metter and her Boston Terrier Nikki overlook what’s left of destroyed trailers that fill a canal near a trailer park in Marathon, Florida, U.S., June 10, 2018. REUTERS/Zach Fagenson

Metter has been bunked down in temporary housing supplied by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) since November, after the Category 4 storm, with winds of up to 130 miles per hour (209 kph), strafed nearby Cudjoe Key on Sept. 10, 2017.

“A few people are finding housing on boats or they’re sleeping on couches, but a lot of people who work here can’t afford to stay and it’s a sad thing,” said the 50-year-old bookkeeper and bartender in Marathon, a city made up of 13 tiny islands about 50 miles east of Key West and 115 miles southwest of Miami.

Though much of mainland Florida escaped major damage, the Keys were devastated. The resort islands, stretching southwest from the tip of the Florida Peninsula into the Gulf of Mexico, are connected by a single, narrow highway that runs along a series of bridges and causeways.

The hurricane destroyed almost 1,200 homes in Monroe County, which includes the Keys and parts of the mainland that are almost entirely in Everglades National Park. That figure excludes trailers, a popular form of housing in the Keys, and homes damaged so severely that owners simply abandoned them.

Overall, 84 people in Florida died as a result of Irma, and the region, including other southeastern states, suffered an estimated $50 billion worth of damage, according to the National Hurricane Center.

As the hurricane approached, Metter evacuated and stayed with family in Michigan, but returned a month later to see the devastation in her neighborhood, where only eight of 50 trailers and homes remained intact. Rotting debris and seaweed filled her home, and she decided rebuilding was the only option.

Others had no choice but to live elsewhere. A lack of affordable, safe housing forced many of those who work in the Keys’ numerous restaurants and hotels to move to the mainland, officials said.

“Folks are living in unlawful spaces that don’t meet code, unsafe spaces, and they have been doing it because they want to be there and it’s the only way they can afford to be there,” said Jaimie Ross, president of the Florida Housing Coalition.

Monroe County Commissioner George Neugent expects many who lost their homes or suffered major damage to never come back. In 2016, the county’s population totaled about 79,000, almost all of them residing in the Keys, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

“I’m estimating between 15 and 25 percent of our population is going to be lost and we lose more and more every day,” he said.

To put a dent in the housing deficit, Monroe County has teamed with private developers and donors on a plan to build homes capable of withstanding 200 mile-per-hour winds that are affordable for hospitality workers. Florida Governor Rick Scott and state lawmakers are also weighing a proposal for 1,300 new housing units for workers in the Keys.

The construction cannot come fast enough as the region braces for what this year’s hurricane season, which began June 1, will bring to the region.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Prediction Center expects the season to be a near-normal to above-normal season in terms of the number and intensity of storms.

The long recovery from Irma and the previous hurricane season has raised doubts with many, said Neil Curran, 45, a contractor and waiter who lost the 42-foot sailboat where he lived off Key West during last year’s storm.

While Curran is renting a new boat after bouncing around more than a dozen FEMA-funded hotel rooms, he said he knew of at least two dozen friends who have left the islands, and more on the cusp of leaving.

“Over the summer, we’re going to see a pretty big mass exodus,” he said.

(Reporting by Zachary Fagenson; editing by Ben Klayman, Frank McGurty and G Crosse)

Florida communities scramble to help displaced Puerto Ricans

Puerto Rican Debora Oquendo, 43, makes a phone call to a doctor for her 10-month-old daughter in a hotel room where she lives, in Orlando, Florida, U.S., December 4, 2017.

By Robin Respaut and Alvin Baez

KISSIMMEE, Florida (Reuters) – At Leslie Campbell’s office in the central Florida city of St. Cloud, the phone will not stop ringing.

Director of special programs for the Osceola County School District, Campbell helps enroll students fleeing storm-ravaged Puerto Rico.

Her job has been a busy one. Since hurricanes Irma and Maria devastated the Caribbean in September, over 2,400 new students have arrived in the district. That is enough to fill more than two typical-sized elementary schools. Dozens more youngsters show up weekly.

“We’re just inundated, from the minute we come in, to the minute we leave,” said Campbell, who helps families obtain transportation, meals and clothing.

Across the country, state and local officials are scrambling to manage an influx of Puerto Ricans, a migration that is impacting education budgets, housing, demographics and voter rolls in communities where these newcomers are landing.

Florida, already home to more than 1 million Puerto Ricans, is on the front lines. About 300,000 island residents have arrived in the state since early October, according to Florida’s Division of Emergency Management. The influx is nearly 2.5 times the size of the Mariel boat lift that brought 125,000 Cubans ashore in 1980.

Some Puerto Rican arrivals have passed through Florida on their way to New York, Pennsylvania, Texas and other states. Some may eventually return home. But many will not. The island is still reeling months after Hurricane Maria, a Category 5 storm, wreaked catastrophic damage to homes, businesses and infrastructure. Nearly 40 percent of residents still lack electricity. The economy has been devastated.

For Florida, the inflow of Puerto Ricans is altering public budgets and perhaps the political calculus in a state that President Donald Trump won by a slim margin in 2016. Puerto Ricans, who are U.S. citizens, are on pace to overtake Cuban-Americans within a few years as the state’s largest Latino voting bloc. Many criticized the Trump administration’s hurricane response as inadequate.

Politicians are taking notice. Florida’s Republican Governor Rick Scott has reached out to these newcomers. The state has opened reception centers where Puerto Ricans can apply for food stamps and Medicaid, the federal healthcare system for the poor. Scott has asked for an additional $100 million in state spending to house arriving families, many of whom are doubled up with relatives or packed into aging hotels.

Washington, meanwhile, continues to wrestle with the question of how to help Puerto Rico, having long rejected the idea of a federal bailout for the insolvent U.S. territory, which filed for a form of bankruptcy in May. Congress appears unlikely to grant anywhere near the $94.4 billion the territory’s leaders estimate it would take to rebuild.

As federal lawmakers dither, state and local taxpayers are watching the tab to resettle islanders grow.

Statewide, more than 11,200 students from Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Island have enrolled in Florida public schools since the storms, according to the governor’s office. Most arrived after a deadline that determines state funding based on enrollment, resulting in an estimated loss for local districts of $42 million during the 2017 fall semester, a Reuters analysis shows.

Requests for public assistance climbed by 5 percent in Florida during the last three months of 2017, compared to the same period in 2016, according to state figures. Federal food stamp issuance, driven by victims of hurricanes Irma and Maria, jumped 24 percent or $294 million over the same period.

The state is also seeing more extremely ill patients from Puerto Rico.

Keyshla Betancourt Irizarry, 22, came to Florida in October on a humanitarian flight with her mother and brother. Suffering with the blood cancer Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, Betancourt was deteriorating fast on an island whose healthcare system is in tatters.

Now living in Orlando, she is on Florida’s Medicaid plan, which pays for her radiation treatments. The family has no plans to return to the territory.

“I cannot get the best medical help in Puerto Rico, and it has become even worse after Hurricane Maria,” Betancourt said.

Medicaid patients cost the federal government more on the mainland than in Puerto Rico, because Washington caps Medicaid funding sent to its territories. Such costs will only grow if Congress fails to stabilize Puerto Rico, said Juan Hernandez Mayoral, former director of the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration, which represents the territory in Washington.

“You can pay for it in the 50 states or you can pay much less in Puerto Rico,” Hernandez said. “The hurricane has sped up the migration.”

A Reuters photo essay (http://reut.rs/2AQmzh6) captures images of displaced Puerto Ricans in Florida.

CLASSROOM SQUEEZE

Central Florida was one of the country’s fastest-growing regions even before the disasters as Puerto Ricans fleeing a sputtering economy flocked here for jobs in the booming tourist trade. An estimated 360,000 have settled in the area, the largest concentration in Florida.

The Osceola County school district has enrolled thousands of new students in recent years, including nearly 2,700 in 2015-2016 alone. To accommodate them, the district hired more bilingual teachers, converted offices into classrooms, added portable units and built a new middle school. In 2016, voters approved a half-cent sales tax to provide more funding.

Hurricane Maria has compounded the urgency.

“We have students coming without clothes or records. Some are exhibiting symptoms of post-traumatic stress,” said Kelvin Soto, an Osceola County school board member. “We’re handling it well, but it’s straining our resources.”

Recent arrivals include Felix Martell and his five-year-old daughter Eliany, who settled in Ocala, Florida, about 80 miles (129 kilometers) northwest of Orlando. Martell is the sole caretaker for the child after his wife died two years ago. He worried Eliany’s education would suffer in Puerto Rico due to lengthy school closures following Maria.

Father and daughter are now living in a run-down hotel paid for by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Martell has yet to find a job. Still, he said there is no turning back.

“The girl has learned more in three weeks of school here than in the entire semester on the island,” he said. “I am concentrating on her future.”

TIGHT HOUSING

A shortage of affordable housing is acute for Puerto Rican emigres.

The Community Hope Center, a nonprofit in Kissimmee, Florida, south of Orlando, has been besieged with requests for shelter, according to Rev. Mary Downey, the executive director.

“People are calling us and saying, ‘we’re homeless now,'” Downey said. “It’s awful. There is simply not enough housing to meet the needs.”

Central Florida housing is a bargain compared to places such as New York or San Francisco, but it is beyond the reach of many newcomers lacking savings or jobs. Homes under $200,000 sell quickly, and Orlando-area rents are growing faster than the national average. Local officials say the situation could worsen as families that are doubling and tripling up eventually seek their own places.

Deborah Oquendo Fuentes, 43, and her 11-month-old baby girl Genesis Rivera share a FEMA-paid hotel room in Orlando after fleeing Puerto Rico in October. Oquendo, who found a part-time job that pays minimum wage, fears they will be homeless when that assistance runs out this month.

“I don’t have enough money to move to another place,” Oquendo said. “I feel alone, and I’m afraid.”

(Reporting by Robin Respaut and Alvin Baez; Editing by Marla Dickerson)

Israel approves building plans for 31 settler homes in West Bank’s Hebron

Israeli soldiers stand at a military camp in the West Bank city of Hebron October 17, 2017. REUTERS/Mussa Qawasma

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel on Monday approved building plans for 31 settler homes in Hebron in the West Bank, a spokeswoman said, a first such move in the Israeli-occupied area for some 15 years.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has felt increased pressure for settlement expansion from the rightist flank of his coalition, though construction is not imminent as a bureaucratic process must still run its course.

His government has made numerous announcements of settlement building recently, angering Palestinians seeking a state on land Israel captured in a 1967 war but no longer eliciting serious U.S. criticism with President Donald Trump in the White House.

Still, settlement advocates say that despite a string of announcements for construction of thousands of settler homes in the West Bank, only a fraction might be built eventually.

Hebron is the largest Palestinian city in the occupied West Bank with a population of some 216,000. About 1,000 Israeli settlers live in the heart of the city, which for decades has been a focus of religious friction between Muslims and Jews.

Israeli anti-settlement watchdog Peace Now detailed the project’s plans in an area of Hebron where the settlers live and its web site showed a graphic of what the prospective four-storey, stone-clad apartment block would look like.

It said that the last time settler homes were built in this area was in 2002.

Hadar Horen, a spokeswoman for the Israeli body that runs civilian affairs in the West Bank, could not confirm the details issued by Peace Now and said the planning committee decision would be published later.

(Writing by Ori Lewis; editing by Mark Heinrich)

U.S. sues Los Angeles over inadequate housing for disabled

A view of downtown Los Angeles, California, U.S. February 23, 2017. REUTERS/Mike Blake

By Jonathan Stempel

(Reuters) – The United States has joined a lawsuit accusing Los Angeles of failing to develop affordable housing for disabled people, despite accepting millions of dollars of federal funds for that purpose, the Department of Justice said on Wednesday.

The decision to intervene adds legal firepower to a whistleblower case brought by Los Angeles wheelchair user Mei Ling, and signals the government’s belief it has a greater chance of success than typical of False Claims Act lawsuits.

It also follows Los Angeles’ agreement last August to settle litigation by several advocacy groups by spending at least $200 million over a decade to provide 4,000 affordable apartments for people with disabilities.

A year earlier, the second most populous U.S. city committed to spending $1.3 billion over 30 years to fix broken sidewalks that critics called nightmares for wheelchair users.

A spokesman for Democratic City Attorney Mike Feuer, Rob Wilcox, in a statement said Los Angeles would “vigorously fight” the lawsuit, which threatens to “divert tens of millions more from L.A. taxpayers to the federal treasury – without housing a single person. This abuse of power cannot stand.”

The lawsuit accused Los Angeles of falsely certifying its compliance with the Fair Housing Act and other laws protecting the disabled, such as by setting aside 7 percent of multifamily units for people with impaired mobility, sight or hearing.

Such compliance was a condition for the city of 4 million to receive U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development funds.

But the lawsuit said none of the HUD-funded multifamily housing in Los Angeles supported by CRA/LA, a city agency once called the Community Redevelopment Agency, had enough accessible units.

“Denying people with disabilities equal access to public housing deprives one of the most disadvantaged groups in society of fair housing opportunities,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Chad Readler of the Justice Department’s civil division.

The CRA/LA did not respond to requests for comment.

Ling’s lawyer, Scott Moore, said his client once spent three years in a homeless shelter because she could not find accessible housing, and even now cannot use her bathtub normally.

“This is monumental for my client,” Moore said in an interview. “If cities think they can take the money, and only then try to make amends, then the False Claims Act has no meaning.”

False Claims Act lawsuits let private whistleblowers sue on the government’s behalf, and share in recoveries.

The nonprofit Fair Housing Council of San Fernando Valley also sued on Ling’s behalf.

The case is U.S. ex rel Ling et al v City of Los Angeles et al, U.S. District Court, Central District of California, No. 11-00974.

(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by David Gregorio, Bernard Orr and Jonathan Oatis)

U.S. housing starts unexpectedly fall for second straight month

FILE PHOTO -- Construction workers build a single family home in San Diego, California, U.S. on February 15, 2017. REUTERS/Mike Blake/File Photo

WASHINGTON – U.S. homebuilding unexpectedly fell in April amid a persistent decline in the construction of multi-family housing units and a modest rebound in single-family projects, pointing to a slowdown in the housing market recovery.

Housing starts dropped 2.6 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1.17 million units, the Commerce Department said on Tuesday. That was the lowest level since last November and followed a downwardly revised rate of 1.20 million units in March.

Economists polled by Reuters had forecast groundbreaking activity rising to a rate of 1.26 million units last month from a previously reported rate of 1.22 million units in March.

Homebuilding increased 0.7 percent on a year-on-year basis.

Single-family homebuilding, which accounts for the largest share of the residential housing market, rebounded 0.4 percent to a pace of 835,000 units last month. That left the bulk of the 5.1 percent decline in March intact.

Single-family starts surged 19.4 percent in the Midwest and advanced 9.1 percent in the West. They fell 3.4 percent in the South and tumbled 29.2 percent in the Northeast.

Some of the drop in starts, especially in the Northeast, could be weather-related after a snowstorm lashed the region in March. Demand for housing remains underpinned by a tightening labor market, characterized by an unemployment rate at a 10-year low of 4.4 percent.

A survey on Monday showed homebuilders’ confidence rose in May, with bullishness about current sales and over the next six months.

Last month, starts for the volatile multi-family housing segment dropped 9.2 percent to a pace of 337,000 units. Multi-family starts have declined for four straight months.

Building permits fell 2.5 percent, driven by a 4.5 percent drop percent in the single-family segment. Multi-family permits rose 1.4 percent.

((Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Paul Simao))