PEARL, Mississippi – The Federal Emergency Management Agency is set to announce sweeping changes in how the U.S. government will verify the property of disaster relief seekers who lack certain legal documents for them inherited property.
The change responds to the rollback of rules that have prevented black Americans in the Deep South from getting help rebuilding after catastrophic storms if they can’t adequately prove they own their home – and this comes as Hurricane Ida threatened to repeat the cycle.
“What we’re trying to do is make sure that we understand that each individual situation is unique and that we don’t need to have a unique approach,” FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell said. , in an interview Wednesday with Mississippi Emergency Management. Agency Headquarters, where she explained how FEMA was helping Ida recover.
“We will continue to try to improve our program and make additional changes. Some of them we can do right now, like this one. Some of them will require regulatory changes, ”she said. “But we are working really hard to make these changes.”
For years, FEMA has relied on documents such as deeds to prove the land belonged to disaster victims before sending them money through its Individual Assistance program. This practice was aimed at combating fraud. But many black applicants, whose homes or land were inherited informally without a written will – a form of property known as heir property – were also turned down under the rules.
Under the new policy, which is in effect for natural disasters declared since Aug. 23, these claimants will be able to take other steps to prove ownership, such as showing receipts for major repairs or improvements to their home. In some cases, they will be allowed to self-certify to meet ownership requirements.
FEMA will now also send home inspectors to people who cannot check their property, rather than sending rejection letters that disaster survivors should appeal. Applicants able to show other forms of documents to employees during visits will not have to appeal.
The agency piloted the approach in response to floods in June and July that flooded homes in Detroit and neighboring communities.
“We saw a huge increase in the number of people we were able to deem eligible,” said Criswell, “where in the past we probably would have sent this letter and asked them to appeal the process.”
The agency’s previous policy was particularly punitive for black communities in the South.
Throughout the region, black families can trace the land on which their homes and farms stand from the time of Reconstruction. But discrimination and mistrust of the legal system prevented their ancestors from formalizing their property on paper. And registering property rights in court for such land now can be complex and costly.
Someone who seeks FEMA’s help may own land that has been in their family for generations. They may also have a habit of paying property taxes for this. But not having the documents requested by the agency left them little recourse to challenge refusals of assistance.
In predominantly black counties in the United States, FEMA’s denial of assistance for “title issues” was twice the national average of about 2%, according to a recent Washington Post analysis. out of 9.5 million requests for assistance submitted since 2010. The percentage of disaster survivors turned down because they were unable to prove ownership has often increased in the South. The survey highlighted a predominantly black rural community in Alabama, where at least 35% of help seekers were turned down because they had failed to follow homeowner verification rules in the months that followed. a tornado.
“Our department has an obligation to ensure equal access to disaster relief and assistance to all survivors who need it,” Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in a statement. “Equity is the cornerstone of our homeland security mission and in all of our work we must reach out to minority communities, the disadvantaged and others disenfranchised. The changes we are announcing today reflect our commitment to always do better to achieve this moral imperative. “
FEMA’s updated policy is just one step toward resolving the equity gaps that have long plagued the disaster response agency. Authorities have also announced changes for victims who suffer from disaster-related disabilities. FEMA will provide assistance with equipment, such as ramps or grab bars, that can make damaged homes safe and functional for people with disabilities, even if applicants had not undergone such modifications prior to a disaster.
The updated guidelines will also expand the options tenants can submit to prove they live in the affected properties. In addition to a written lease or rent receipts, tenants will now be able to submit documents such as their car registration and letters from local schools or non-profit organizations. People in mobile homes will also have the option to submit a letter from the owner of the property.
With climate change fueling more intense storms, criticism of disparities in disaster assistance has grown. Black, Latino and low-income families are more likely to live in communities vulnerable to flooding.
Related: Three of the country’s richest states are on track to receive more than half of the money from a new program helping communities prepare for extreme weather conditions.
The first major test could take place in the coming weeks, as Louisiana residents devastated by Ida begin to seek help.
Ida, a Category 4 storm, has blazed a trail of destruction across the state, destroying homes, knocking down trees and power lines, and flooding some communities. There are nearly 209,000 acres of heir property in Louisiana, according to the US Department of Agriculture. Although the agency did not provide a racial breakdown, the Federation of Southern Co-operatives, a nonprofit association of black farmers and landowners, estimates that 60% of black-owned land in the South is held as the property of the heirs.
In Louisiana, the pain of being excluded from recovery aid due to systemic barriers is still fresh. After Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita in 2005, 20,000 New Orleans residents were unable to receive assistance from FEMA or the Department of Housing and Urban Development because they owned their heirs, according to the Ministry of Agriculture.
In Bucksport on the coast of South Carolina, Hazel Bellamy learned she was living on her heirs’ property when she asked FEMA for help after the 2016 and 2018 hurricanes destroyed her home. Her family had lived on the land, but neither she nor the name of a living relative was on the deed, which meant she couldn’t get help.
“It was tough. It was a nightmare,” Bellamy said.
Native Americans, Appalachian residents, and communities along the US-Mexico border have also faced challenges with heir property, including difficulty in taking out mortgages.
“Because you can’t clearly prove ownership, then no one wants to take the risk or accept the risk of making a loan or having you access FEMA funds or any government program,” Jennie Stephens, CEO of the Center for Heirs’ Property Preservation, said in an interview ahead of FEMA’s policy change.
“Literally you can see money flying out the window because of it – the land doesn’t have a clear title, so you really can’t maximize the use of the land. “