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A destroyed house surrounded by flood water. 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.

Go deeper

Extreme weather spots in Illinois

A house on the 2700 block of Jonquil Lane suffered severe damage on June 21, 2021 after a tornado came through the area in Woodridge, Illinois. Photo: Jon Durr/Getty Images

Monday night, a tornado briefly touched down in western LaSalle County and another reportedly flipped a semi-truck near Springfield.

Why it matters: According to new FEMA data analyzing the last two decades, Illinois is seeing an uptick in extreme weather disasters.

Updated Oct 13, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Biden lifting land border travel restrictions for fully vaccinated

Photo: Yuri Gripas/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The Biden administration will open up U.S. land borders with Canada and Mexico to non-essential travel starting in November — but only to those fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

Why it matters: Government officials and business leaders have decried the economic impact pandemic travel restrictions have had on border communities. They have called for the U.S. to reopen the borders given high, and rising, vaccinations rates there.

Texas House probes school library books dealing with race and sexuality

Photo: Brittany Murray/MediaNews Group/Long Beach Press-Telegram via Getty Images

Texas state Rep. Matt Krause (R), chair of the Texas House Committee on General Investigating, announced Wednesday that he's initiating a probe into schools' library books, according to a letter sent to the state's education agency and other superintendents.

Why it matters: The probe focuses on books that discuss race, sexuality, or "make students feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress because of their race or sex," Krause wrote in the letter.

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