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FEMA closes gap that prevented many Black families in South from receiving disaster aid

PEARL, Miss. — The Federal Emergency Management Agency is set to announce sweeping changes to the way the U.S. government will verify homeownership for disaster relief applicants who lack certain legal documents for inherited property.

The change responds to pushback against rules that have stymied Black Americans in the Deep South from getting help to rebuild after catastrophic storms if they can't adequately prove they own their homes — and it comes as Hurricane Ida threatened to repeat the cycle.

"What we're trying to do is make sure that we understand each individual situation is unique and that we need to not have a one-size-fits-all approach," FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell said in an interview Wednesday at Mississippi Emergency Management Agency headquarters, where she spoke about how FEMA was helping with recovery from Ida.

"We're going to continue to try to improve our program and make additional changes. Some of them we can do right away, like this. Some of them will require some regulatory change," she said. "But we are really driving hard to make these changes."

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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.

Under the new policy, which is in effect for natural disasters declared since Aug. 23, 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.

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.

The agency piloted the approach in response to flooding in June and July that inundated homes in Detroit and nearby communities.

"We saw a huge increase in the number of people that we were able to deem eligible," Criswell said, "where in the past, we would have probably sent that letter and had them appeal the process."

The agency's previous policy was particularly punishing for Black communities in the South.

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.

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. The 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.

"Our Department has an obligation to ensure we provide equal access to disaster relief and assistance to all survivors who are in need," Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in a statement. "Equity is a cornerstone of our homeland security mission and in all of our work we must reach minority communities, the disadvantaged, and the otherwise disenfranchised. The changes we are announcing today reflect our commitment to always do better in achieving this moral imperative."

FEMA's updated policy is just one step toward addressing equity gaps that have long plagued the agency charged with responding to disasters. Officials also announced changes for victims who incur disaster-related disabilities. FEMA will provide help for equipment, like ramps or grab bars, that can make damaged homes safe and functional for people with disabilities, even if applicants didn't have such modifications before a disaster.

Updated guidelines will also expand the options for paperwork renters can submit to prove that they live at affected properties. In addition to a written lease or rent receipts, renters will now be able to submit documents such as their car registration and letters from local schools or nonprofits. People in mobile homes will also have flexibility to submit a letter from the property's owner.

With climate change fueling more intense storms, criticism of disparities in disaster aid has grown louder. Black, Latino and low-income families are more likely to live in communities vulnerable to flooding.

The first major test could come in the weeks ahead, as Louisiana residents devastated by Ida begin applying for help.

Ida, a Category 4 storm, carved a path of destruction in the state, destroying homes, knocking down trees and power lines and flooding some communities. There are almost 209,000 acres of heirs' properties in Louisiana, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department. While the agency did not provide a racial breakdown, the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, a nonprofit association of Black farmers and landowners, estimates that 60 percent of Black-owned land in the South is held as heirs' property.

In Louisiana, the pain of being shut out from recovery aid because of systemic barriers is still fresh. After Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita in 2005, 20,000 New Orleanians were unable to receive some aid from FEMA or the Department of Housing and Urban Development because they had heirs' property, according to the Agriculture Department.

In Bucksport, in coastal South Carolina, Hazel Bellamy learned that she lived on heirs' property when she applied for FEMA aid after hurricanes in 2016 and 2018 destroyed her home. Her family had lived on the land, but neither her nor any living relative's name was on the deed, which meant she couldn't get approved for help.

"It was hard. It was a nightmare," Bellamy said.

Native Americans, people in Appalachia and communities along the U.S.-Mexico border have also struggled with the challenges that come with heirs' property, which also include difficulty taking out mortgages.

"Because you cannot prove clear ownership, then no one wants to take the risk or accept the risk in making either a loan or having you access FEMA funds or any governmental program," Jennie Stephens, CEO of the Center for Heirs' Property Preservation, said in an interview before FEMA's policy change.

"Literally, you can see money flying out of the window because of it — the land does not have clear title, so therefore you really cannot maximize the use of the land."

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