The Federal Emergency Management Agency is getting ready to announce a major change in the way the government determines homeownership for those applying for disaster relief, NBC News is reporting.
According to the network, the change comes after pushback against rules that have left Black Americans in the South from getting the necessary aid to rebuild after damaging storms.
A FEMA program had relied on records, including deeds, to prove that land belonged to disaster victims before it sent them money.
The practice was put in place to stop fraud. However, NBC News noted many Black applicants inherited their homes informally without written wills — a form of ownership known as heirs’ property. Until now they were denied funds under the rules.
Under the new policy, which went into effect for natural disasters declared since Aug. 23, applicants will now be able to take other steps to prove ownership, including showing receipts for major repairs or improvements at their homes. And in some instances, they will be permitted to self-certify to meet the ownership requirements.
The new policy will be put to a test on claims coming in from homeowners who sustained damage during Hurricane Ida.
The Category 4 storm came ashore Sunday in Louisiana causing extensive damage as it moved northward.
“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
“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.”
The agency’s prior approach was particularly difficult for Blacks in the South.
NBC News said that discrimination and distrust in the legal system stopped many of their ancestors from officially taking the necessary steps to formalize their ownership on paper.
“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.
“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.”
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