The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) announced sweeping changes Thursday to the way the U.S. government will verify homeownership for disaster relief applicants. Under the updated FEMA policy, disaster survivors seeking help to rebuild after Hurricane Ida will have new ways to verify even if they lack certain legal documents for inherited property.
The change responds to pushback against rules that have systemically kept Black Americans in the Deep South from getting federal assistance to rebuild after catastrophic storms if they can’t adequately prove they own their homes, and it comes just as Hurricane Ida threatened to repeat the cycle. For years, FEMA relied on records like deeds to prove that land belonged to disaster victims before it sent them money through its individual assistance program. The practice was meant to curb fraud. But many Black applicants, whose homes or land were inherited informally without written wills — a form of ownership known as “heirs’ property” — were also denied under the rules. A FEMA investigation highlighted a rural and predominately Black community in Alabama where at least 35 percent of aid applicants were turned away because they hadn’t met owner verification rules in the months after a tornado.
Across the region, Black families can trace the land their homes and farms sit on as far back as Reconstruction. But discrimination and distrust in the legal system blocked their forebears from formalizing their ownership on paper. And enshrining property rights in court for such land now can be complex and costly. Someone applying for help from FEMA may hold land that’s been in their family for generations. They may also have a history of paying property taxes for it. But not having the paperwork the agency asked for left them with little recourse to challenge aid denials.
This is a culture shift for the agency and we are only just beginning. These new changes reduce barriers and help us provide more equitable disaster support to all survivors, specifically for underserved populations.
— Deanne Criswell (@FEMA_Deanne) September 2, 2021
In majority-Black counties across the U.S., FEMA’s denial rate for assistance for “title issues” was twice as high as the national average of about 2 percent, according to a recent analysis by The Washington Post of 9.5 million aid applications submitted since 2010. The percentage of disaster survivors denied because they were unable to prove ownership often climbed higher in the South.
Under the new policy, which is in effect for natural disasters declared since August 23rd, such applicants will be able to take other steps to prove ownership, such as showing receipts for significant repairs or improvements at their homes. In some cases, they will be allowed to self-certify to meet the ownership requirements.
— The Root (@TheRoot) September 2, 2021
FEMA will now also send inspectors to the homes of people who can’t verify their property ownership, rather than send rejection letters that disaster survivors would have to appeal. Applicants able to show other forms of paperwork to employees during the visits won’t have to appeal.