Research Explores Reasons for FEMA Application Denials in Puerto Rico

An article in Housing Policy Debate, “Deemed Ineligible: Reasons Homeowners in Puerto Rico Were Denied Aid After Hurricane María,” identifies several key reasons homeowner applicants were denied or received insufficient assistance from FEMA’s Individuals and Households Program (IHP) after Hurricane Maria. The author, Ivis Garcia, concludes that FEMA officials’ lack of cultural competence and lack of knowledge about property rights in Puerto Rico were common elements in all of these reasons for denial and underpayment.

Following Hurricane Maria in 2017, Garcia moved to Puerto Rico and worked with the Disaster Housing Recovery Coalition (DHRC) at NLIHC to connect with recovery stakeholders using a Participatory Action Research (PAR) framework. Garcia formally interviewed 25 recovery stakeholders and attended various convenings through which she identified IHP application denials for homeowners as a key issue for the recovery.

She found several specific barriers for homeowners in the IHP program. These included:

  • Inability to schedule an inspection
  • Missing an inspection appointment
  • Issues with the inspection
  • Insufficient funds for repairs
  • Duplicate applications
  • Inability to prove ownership.

Many survivors lacked access to telephone and internet or had to leave Puerto Rico entirely, making it difficult to either schedule or follow through on the property inspections required for IHP assistance. For those who were able to participate in an inspection, many had FEMA inspectors who did not speak Spanish or who did not conduct thorough inspections. In some cases, FEMA denied assistance based on applicants having duplicate addresses. However, it is common in Puerto Rico for multiple floors of a building to share an address but contain separate households, or for multiple homes on a parcel to share an address.

Inability to prove ownership was the leading reason for denial of assistance. Seventy-seven thousand homeowner applicants were denied assistance because they could not verify their status as homeowners. Puerto Rico’s non-standardized address system led to unnecessary FEMA rejections when properties showed more than one address or an inexact address for a homeowner applicant. At the same time, many homeowners were rejected because they simply lacked a title or alternative documentation to demonstrate ownership of their home.

According to Garcia, FEMA denied many of these homeowners because it failed to recognize non-traditional housing arrangements or that Puerto Rico’s Civil Code grants certain property rights even without a title, which is different from the standard U.S. property rights framework. FEMA was slow to adopt self-declarative statements of property ownership and, when it did, failed to reach out to many applicants who it had already denied.

Homeowners unable to prove ownership were often treated as renters by the IHP program and only reimbursed for damage to their personal belongings and not damage to the structure of their homes. This led to underpayment of assistance for many homeowners and contributed to an anemic recovery. FEMA’s lack of cultural competence played a key role in this failure.

“Deemed Ineligible: Reasons Homeowners in Puerto Rico Were Denied Aid After Hurricane María” is at: