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Addressing Burdensome Ownership and Occupancy Requirements to Improve Disaster Assistance

Requirements to prove property ownership have historically prevented vulnerable natural disaster victims from efficiently receiving urgently needed federal assistance. This stems, in part, from how common it is in some regions of the U.S.—particularly in low-income, communities of color—for families to lack formal deeds or titles to homes they have owned or occupied for years. To improve outcomes for the survivors of devastating disasters, policymakers have started to review requirements to produce documentation of formal ownership and occupancy, making changes to increase flexibility.

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Federal Emergency Management Agency

Proof of ownership and occupancy requirements have been a particular problem for FEMA’s Individuals and Households Program, which can provide funding for temporary housing, repairing and replacing housing, and other housing and emergency needs to families who have lost their homes in a presidentially-declared disaster.

To be eligible for FEMA housing assistance applicants must also have been displaced in the disaster or have homes that sustained enough damage to render them uninhabitable or inaccessible, as documented in a FEMA inspection. Applicants must also not have duplicative benefits to cover their housing losses, including insurance. Additional eligibility and verifications are then overlaid depending on the specific type of assistance offered. Importantly, FEMA historically required proof of formal titles for homeowners to receive assistance, which has created significant challenges after major disasters.

The Gulf Coast: In much of the American South, families inherit land without a clear transfer of title from generation to generation. In fact, more than one-third of Black-owned land in the South is inherited without a deed or will. Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in August 2005, displacing more than a million people. Hurricane Rita hit southeast Louisiana less than a month later, causing additional flooding and prolonging the region’s recovery. In total, FEMA fielded 1.7 million requests for aid over three states—Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi—after the storms, with damages totaling approximately $150 billion. After Hurricanes Rita and Katrina, about 20,000 heirs across the southeast were unable to secure federal assistance because of their inability to provide formal documentation.

Puerto Rico: Over the last 75 years, an “informal” system of housing emerged in Puerto Rico, with families settling on open land after economic upheavals. More than half of houses were informally owned or lacked documentation before Hurricanes Irma and Maria devastated Puerto Rico in 2017, with many households claiming ownership from decades of occupying—or squatting on—unused government or private property. After Hurricanes Irma and Maria devastated Puerto Rico in 2017—damaging over 90% of homes on the island—residents urgently needed federal assistance. Over 77,000 households in need of aid were denied FEMA assistance because of issues presenting acceptable proof of ownership. According to GAO, FEMA staff reached out to more than 20,000 survivors awaiting an assistance determination in November 2018, ultimately approving almost $34 million in assistance for about 11,000 survivors. However, even today, many households have not secured safe housing, living in damaged homes covered by blue tarps, and remain vulnerable to future storms.

To address these issues—and after the bipartisan advocacy of Sens. Tim Scott (R-SC) and Jon Ossoff (D-GA)FEMA announced in September 2021 that it would accept additional forms of documentation to verify occupancy and ownership of property, including self-certification for property heirs. FEMA now allows the below documentation:

To prevent a future reversal of FEMA’s policy change, Reps. Adriano Espaillat (D-NY) and Jennifer González Colón (R-PR) reintroduced H.R.3037, the Housing Survivors of Major Disasters Act of 2021. The bill would codify FEMA’s policy change allowing for self-attestation or other forms of documentation to verify ownership of property, requiring FEMA to create a standardized self-certification form for households. The bill would also apply the policy change retroactively to 2017, allowing survivors of disasters from previous years to access assistance. An earlier version of the bill passed the House in 2020 but stalled in the Senate.

U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development

While FEMA is the primary and first federal agency to provide disaster assistance, HUD often provides long-term community and housing recovery grant funding for major disasters. In fact, Congress has appropriated about $95 billion to HUD’s Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) program to assist states and communities with their long-term recoveries. However, the program has never been permanently authorized by Congress, instead relying on ad hoc supplemental appropriations and Federal Register notices to guide grantees.

State CDBG-DR proof of ownership requirements

While federal CDBG-DR requirements do not explicitly have title requirements for verifying recipients’ homeownership, state-level agencies implementing disaster recovery plans with CDBG-DR dollars can require proof of ownership and occupancy.

For example, in the wake of Hurricane Matthew, North Carolina established proof of ownership requirements for its housing repair and replacement program, defining ownership as “holding a fee simple warranty deed or having a title to the manufactured home or property.” Advocacy groups within the state reported encountering victims who were unable to obtain assistance due to the requirements. Though the program left some flexibility for heirs to provide alternative evidence of inheritance, attempts to secure such documentation were challenging for victims and strained local community organizations, such as legal non-profits.

Title assistance programs

Some states’ CDBG-DR action plans—including Florida, Texas, Louisiana, and Puerto Rico—have included title assistance programs, intended to provide legal aid for low- and moderate-income victims who lack documentation and need help providing evidence of property ownership.

After Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico’s repair, rebuild, and relocation assistance was conditioned on formal ownership, but in an attempt to serve owners without formal titles, the Puerto Rico Department of Housing (PRDOH) incorporated a Title Clearance Program (TCP) into its CDBG-DR action plan for properties occupied on public land.

PRDOH diverted thousands of applications to the TCP, which was initially slow to clear titles: in the first 18 months, after more than $1 million spent, the TCP registered only two new titles according to testimony from a community-based organization. As of today, the TCP has received over 10,000 applications, has about 3,300 applications under review, and has granted 83 titles. The title requirement was eventually removed for repairs and rebuilding assistance though, as of 2021, victims were still required to participate in the TCP program.

The future of CDBG-DR and title requirements

Sens. Brian Schatz (D-HI) and Susan Collins (R-ME) have introduced bipartisan legislation to codify CDBG-DR as a standing program. If CDBG-DR were permanently authorized, it could provide the opportunity for the federal government to weigh in more substantially on proof of formal ownership and occupancy through guidance, regulations, or statute—possibly including provisions for CDBG-DR to allow for self-certification similar to the FEMA provisions proposed in the Housing Survivors of Major Disasters Act of 2021.

On February 3, 2022, HUD issued a “Consolidated Notice” to govern $5 billion of CDBG-DR funding appropriated last September. In issuing that notice, HUD indicated it will issue a Request for Information soliciting feedback on regulatory requirements, eligibility, and criteria for grantees reflected in the notice. This RFI process will provide an opportunity for stakeholders to share their perspectives on title requirements in an effort to produce a more effective and broader reaching housing recovery post-disaster.

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