FEMA Announces Changes to Homeownership Rules That Prevented Black Families in the South from Receiving Disaster Relief

The Federal Emergency Management Agency announced sweeping changes Thursday 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.”

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.

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SOURCE: NBC News, Bracey Harris, Lindsey Davis and Dasha Burns