Collective advocacy works!
The Disaster Law Project has been supporting advocates in Puerto Rico in their efforts to make sure that homeowners who survived Hurricane Maria receive the assistance they are entitled to by law. Up to 70,000 homeowners were wrongly denied FEMA benefits because the agency required proof of ownership that either was not available, or did not exist under Puerto Rico law.
After months of back and forth, FEMA agreed to take certain steps in line with our demands. Specifically, the agency will:
- contact individual homeowners whose application was wrongly denied to advise that they have an opportunity to re-file their claim;
- notify homeowners that they can fill out a Sworn Declaration, and submit additional documentation to establish home-ownership;
- waive certain filing deadlines that would otherwise bar an appeal, and;
- direct applicants to legal aid organizations that can provide additional assistance.
Our job now is to make sure FEMA lives up to it promise so that eligible home-owners can finally start to rebuild.
UPDATE: a bill introduced by Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Rep. Adriano Espaillat (D-NY 13) would avoid these problems in future disasters. The Housing Survivors of Major Disasters Act of 2019 would expand the type of evidence disaster survivors could rely on to establish home-ownership, and would make benefits available to people who occupy otherwise unused property, or are homeless. A summary of the bill is here; full text here.