Sep 3, 2021 - Energy & Environment

FEMA ends policy that denied disaster aid to thousands of Black families

Photo of a destroyed home in floodwater
A destroyed house surrounded by floodwaters. Photo: Mark Felix/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) announced Thursday that it will no longer require disaster survivors living on inherited land to prove homeownership before they can access federal assistance for rebuilding.

Why it matters: The policy disproportionately impacts Black families, whose land is often passed down informally rather than through legal deeds and wills, according to a Washington Post analysis published in July. The change comes on the heels of Hurricane Ida.

The backdrop: The absence of formalized procedures started in the Jim Crow era because white Americans excluded Black people from the Southern legal system. The land instead becomes heirs' property, through which families own property collectively without a clear title.

  • Today, land use experts say that over a third of Black-owned land in the South is passed down informally, the Post reports.
  • But without formal deeds, families are unable to apply for federal loans and grants, including from FEMA.
  • Heirs’ property is "the leading cause of Black involuntary land loss," the Department of Agriculture has said.

What's new: FEMA will now accept a broader range of documentation to prove homeownership and occupancy, such as presenting receipts for significant home repairs or improvements, the agency said Thursday. Some applicants will be allowed to self-certify.

  • For those unable to verify ownership, FEMA will now send inspectors to their homes instead of forcing survivors to appeal rejection letters. Survivors who can offer other forms of paperwork will not have to appeal.
  • The agency has also expanded forms of assistance in an effort to "ensure equal access is available to all survivors."
  • The new policy is in effect for natural disasters since the Tennessee flood in late August.

What they're saying: "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," Mayorkas noted.
"This is a culture shift for the agency and we are only just beginning,"
FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell

Worth noting: Sens. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) and Jon Ossoff (D-Ga.) called for changes to the policy after the Post published its analysis.

The big picture: Title issues have led FEMA to deny requests for disaster aid from roughly 2% of applicants, per the Post.

  • In majority-Black counties, that rate is twice as high "in large part because Black people are twice as likely to pass down property informally," the Post found.
  • Internal FEMA documents indicate the agency is also less likely to grant some types of housing assistance to low-income disaster survivors, according to NPR.

What to watch: Congress is considering a bill that would require FEMA to reopen years-old disaster aid cases, the Post reports.

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