The Federal Emergency Management Agency rejected 60.5% of 1.1 million applications filed by Puerto Ricans for housing assistance after Hurricane Maria devastated the area in 2017.

As I explained in an article published in Debate on housing policy, an academic journal, FEMA used 41 different reasons when it rejected a total of 77,000 applicants. The main reason: homeowners legal titles were missing to their properties. Without their names on the deeds, they had no way to prove they were the true owners of the storm-damaged or destroyed homes.

Other reasons given by FEMA include that it deemed the damage insufficient or that two households filed with the same address — which often happens with homes built without building permits, architects or engineers.

Five years after Hurricane Maria, I believe the inability of these homeowners to receive federal assistance has certainly increased Fiona’s impactpowerful storm that hit Puerto Rico on September 18, 2022. When community leaders assessed the damage, they came across hundreds of homes still covered with old blue tarps because they never got a new roof after Maria.

Like an urbanist who has studied disaster recovery efforts in Puerto Rico, I see these tarps as evidence that FEMA has rejected applications it should have accepted. I am watching the agency to see if it happens again this time.

Greatest need, but least likely to get help

FEMA offers financial and housing assistance after disasters to qualified households who are uninsured or whose insurance will not cover the full cost of restoration. Unfortunately, in Puerto Rico and other places that are particularly vulnerable to hurricanes and other disasters, the most vulnerable residents may not have the necessary documentation to secure this assistance.

After Hurricane Harvey drenched Texas in 2017, causing approx $125 billion in damageFEMA rejected 30% of Texans’ housing assistance applications because those households did not have documents with their names printed on them.

Similarly, after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in 2005, FEMA turned away 20,000 applicants who had long occupied homes they had inherited from relatives without ever receiving their title deeds arranged.

Some workarounds

To be clear, FEMA legally can accepts other forms of documentation as proof of ownership when considering requests for assistance.

If there is no final deed, applicants may submit receipts for home repairs or renovations or letters from government agencies certifying residency.

Following advocacy efforts in Puerto RicoFEMA released new guidelines in 2021 with simplified rules for proving home ownership – such as allowing homeowners to make affidavits.

But it’s unclear at this point whether FEMA is informing applicants in the United States of alternative ways they can prove ownership. Legislators in the House and The Senate introduced legislation it would make the agency work harder to help all disaster survivors who qualify for its assistance.

After Fiona

Puerto Ricans appear to be applying more quickly for FEMA assistance after Fiona than after Maria.

The agency received nearly 1 million requests for housing assistance in the first two weeks it was accepting applications, according to Texas Appleseed, a nonprofit that helps its Puerto Rican partners by sifting through early data to see if federal funds reach the most vulnerable households there. FEMA is now authorized to spend $79.4 million to help.

As of October 18, 2022, FEMA has determined that 88 percent of those applicants are eligible for its assistance, according to Texas Appleseed. But almost all approved applicants received only $700 – the standard amount paid as FEMA Help with critical needswhich is a one-off payment designed to cover minor expenses incurred under temporary duress.

Unless they succeed after that filing a complaint with FEMAdisaster survivors who receive this one-time assistance do not receive additional assistance.

Eager to get that $700 quickly, Puerto Rican applicants for FEMA aid are leaving out important information — like the extent of damage to their homes — that could lead to much more aid, according to National Coalition on Low Income Housingadvocacy group.

If they were to get a home inspection, they would have to wait longer for help, but they could potentially get by $37,900 housing allowance.

It is possible that many applicants will later receive assistance to cover at least part of the cost of rebuilding their homes. At this point, it’s too early to tell if FEMA will take a more comprehensive approach when determining which Puerto Rican homeowners should be eligible for these funds.

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