FEMA announced major reforms to address long-standing barriers that have prevented the lowest-income and most marginalized disaster survivors from receiving the assistance they need to recover. The reforms were developed and advanced by NLIHC’s Disaster Housing Recovery Coalition (DRHC) and its partners in impacted communities and championed by Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Adriano Espaillat (D-NY). These reforms are a major victory for disaster survivors, advocates, and the DHRC.
For decades, FEMA required homeowners to submit title documents to receive assistance, and the agency refused to accept alternative documentation. This requirement effectively barred low-income homeowners – predominantly households of color – from receiving the FEMA Individual Assistance for which they were eligible. Residents living in mobile homes and heirship property owners were most severely impacted and wrongfully denied aid to rebuild their homes.
Under FEMA’s new policy, these survivors can now self-certify ownership of their homes when they do not have other documentation, overcoming a major hurdle to recovery. FEMA will also allow all survivors to submit a broader array of documents to prove occupancy and ownership of their homes.
The following changes have been implemented for disasters declared on or after August 23, 2021:
Expanded methods of proving occupancy
- Motor vehicle registrations, letters from local schools, federal or state benefit providers, social service organizations, or court documents from up to one year before the disaster or 18 months after the disaster can now be used to show occupancy of damaged homes
- Survivors living in mobile homes or travel trailers who do not have the traditional documentation may self-certify occupancy as a last resort
Expanded methods of proving ownership
- Letters from public officials stating that the applicant owned the property, receipts for major repairs or improvements, letters from mobile home park owners, and court documents from up to one year before the disaster or 18 months after the disaster can now be used to show ownership of damaged homes
- Survivors with heirship properties, mobile homes, or travel trailers who do not have the traditional documentation may self-certify ownership as a last resort
Disaster assistance expansion
- Limited financial assistance can now be used for repairs of homes that sustained disaster damage for households that do not qualify for housing assistance because the disaster did not render their homes uninhabitable
- Survivors who incurred a disaster-related disability can now receive FEMA assistance to install necessary accessibility measures in their homes (such as grab bars or ramps)
- The removal of disaster-incurred mold growth is now eligible for financial assistance
These changes are much needed and long overdue. Work to reform FEMA’s harmful policy began with efforts by NLIHC and disaster survivors and partners in Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina, and they were continued by the DHRC and advocates in Texas and Florida after Hurricanes Harvey and Michael, in California after several wildfires, and in Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, where over 77,000 households were wrongfully denied FEMA assistance due to title issues.
The DHRC will continue to monitor implementation of the new policy and urge Congress to enact the “Housing Survivors of Major Disasters Act,” introduced by Senator Warren and Representative Espaillat, to make these reforms permanent. The DHRC will also advocate other critically needed legislation to ensure the lowest-income and most marginalized disaster survivors receive the assistance they need to recover.
For more information on the changes at FEMA, read a fact sheet at: https://bit.ly/3DMsd5q
Learn more about what these policy changes mean for disaster survivors by joining our Tuesday DHRC working group meetings and becoming a member of the DHRC!