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FEMA changes policy that kept thousands of Black families from receiving disaster aid

Lonny Wilson, 60, pictured in front of his tarp covered home that was damaged by a tornado in Greensboro, Alabama on June 11. Wilson tried to get help from FEMA but he received a denial from them. He needed to get all the heirs to the family land to sign a notarized form attesting that he owned the house. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is ending a policy that had prevented many Black families in the rural South from getting help after natural disasters. The agency announced Thursday that it will no longer require disaster survivors living on inherited land to prove they own their homes before they can get help rebuilding.

The change follows a July report from The Washington Post that detailed how FEMA was regularly denying help to Black families living on land passed down since a generation after slavery.

For years, FEMA has required applicants for disaster aid to provide a deed or other formal proof of homeownership. The agency said this was necessary to prevent fraud. But the policy cut off thousands of Southern families seeking grants for repairs after disasters destroyed their homes. More than a third of Black-owned land in the South is passed down informally. Land handed down in such a manner becomes heirs’ property, a type of ownership in which families hold property collectively. It’s a practice that dates back to the Jim Crow era, when Black people were subject to what the Department of Agriculture describes as a “well-documented” system of discrimination, including exclusion from loans and swindles by officials.

A Washington Post analysis found that while FEMA denies help to about 2 percent of disaster survivors nationally because of title issues, the rate is twice as high in Black-majority counties. In parts of the Deep South, FEMA has rejected more than a third of disaster aid applicants for this reason.

Families living on heirs’ property will now be allowed to self-certify that they own their homes. FEMA will also accept letters from local officials and bills for home repairs as proof of ownership. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said that the changes were needed to ensure that help reaches minority communities. “The changes we are announcing today reflect our commitment to always do better,” he said in a statement Thursday.

FEMA has come under intense pressure to make this policy change in recent weeks. Several lawmakers’ offices met with agency staff to discuss heirs’ property issues. Sen. Jon Ossoff (D-Ga.) and Tim Scott (R-S.C.) called for heirs’ property changes in a letter to Mayorkas. “As recently documented by The Washington Post, FEMA’s regulations and procedures regarding property title have tended to have unfortunate disparate effects on Black homeowners,” the senators wrote.

Separately, the House committee that oversees the agency approved legislation that would require FEMA to accept self-certification of homeownership from all disaster survivors. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chairman Rep. Peter A. DeFazio (D-Ore.) said at a hearing that the legislation was needed because “FEMA has tried to work through these challenges, but efforts have been ad hoc and inconsistent.” Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) is expected to introduce similar legislation in the Senate this month.

On Thursday, lawmakers welcomed FEMA’s policy reversal, but said they would continue to push to codify the change in law.

“We trust this FEMA to do the right thing and help people facing these circumstances, but we need to ensure these protections extend to future disasters,” said Rep. Troy Carter (D-La.), who sits on the Transportation Committee and was touring Hurricane Ida damage in LaPlace, Louisiana. “The road to hell is paved with good intentions. People can’t fix the properties with intentions. People can’t go on with their lives with good intentions.”

The new guidelines will apply retroactively to Aug. 23, to cover damages from Ida and flooding in Tennessee. The legislation moving through Congress would require FEMA to reopen cases going back several years. For now, though, heirs’ property owners who lost homes to other recent disasters will remain stuck outside the federal recovery system.

In Hale County, Alabama, police officer Eric Wiggins was glad that future survivors will have an easier time getting help than he did after a tornado turned his home into splinters on March 25. But he wishes the changes could apply to his community also.

“What’s the difference between Ida and what happened over here? A disaster is a disaster,” he said.

Wiggins said he still sees people living in trucks or in homes without roofs as he makes his rounds in the impoverished county where FEMA denied 35 percent of applicants because of title problems. He’s been living with his mother while he tries to sort out a deed for his destroyed home, which sat on land passed down informally since Reconstruction.

“This just happened. It’s barely been six months.” he said. “It’s not like we’ve all figured out a way to recover.”