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Creating Equitable Disaster Relief for Low-Income Communities

Oct. 5, 2021, 8:01 AM

The U.S. has been facing more intense natural disasters in both frequency and severity. Natural disasters do not discriminate, but data shows that low-to-median income people and people of color suffer greater impacts than most other groups. In the wake of Hurricane Ida, residents of southern Louisiana and beyond are expected to seek assistance with rebuilding efforts.

The federal government has a robust disaster relief system designed to provide financial assistance to those affected, but financial assistance historically has been more accessible to those who can verify ownership of an impacted residence by providing a deed or other legal instrument substantiating ownership.

By contrast, low-to-median income applicants face obstacles with ownership verification in instances where a home passes by inheritance from a grandparent or next of kin, but the legal title is never perfected by deed or other legal instrument such as a judicial estate or succession proceeding.

This lack of documentation should not bar applicants from disaster relief, and agencies administering relief are working to make this process more accessible to those impacted by disasters.

Obstacles to Rebuilding After Katrina Prompts Changes

After the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Mississippi was given over $5.5 billion in Community Development Block Grant Disaster Relief (CDBG-DR) funding, the congressional tool for providing long-term recovery dollars to impacted communities. This represented only the second federal disaster relief grant over $1 billion dollars, the first following the events of 9/11. The Mississippi Development Authority (MDA) administers Mississippi’s CDBG–DR Program funds and ran into the issue of barriers to eligibility for financial assistance early on in its administration of Katrina relief funds.

One of the programs the MDA administered as part of the Katrina relief was the Homeowner Assistance Program (HAP). HAP’s purpose was to provide grant payments of up to $150,000 to eligible homeowners that relied upon the National Flood Maps to their detriment and suffered flood damage to their primary residence due to Katrina.

To promote resiliency, HAP grant recipients agreed to a covenant on their property establishing stronger building codes, flood insurance, and elevation requirements for them and any future owners of their property. This mitigation covenant promotes HUD policies for resilience from future disasters.

One challenge the MDA ran into in administering HAP was getting covenants in place for homeowners who lacked traditional proof of ownership. Often, homeowners had been living in their home for many years by inheritance, but the chain of title remained in the name of a deceased family member. In response, the MDA and its grant administration team created policies to expand eligibility and get aid to those homeowners most in need.

One of these policies allowed for the covenants required by HAP to be executed by 51% or greater of the current titleholders. This made it easier for applicants who may have had difficulty in tracking down every undivided interest holder in a piece of property. Another MDA policy limited how far down their family tree a HAP applicant had to go to obtain signatures for covenants in situations in which the applicant inherited property from a deceased family member.

As the country faces more devastation due to natural disasters, it seems that the federal government is increasingly running into issues like those faced by the MDA during Katrina recovery. As a result, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has recently announced new guidelines for the documentation it can accept to provide aid to those hit by natural disasters.

New FEMA Policy Guidelines for Receiving Aid

In awarding relief funds, FEMA is required to verify occupancy or ownership. Its new policies will allow for a broader range of documents to satisfy this requirement, including receipts for major home repairs and self-certification of ownership. FEMA also will be able to waive the verification requirements for applicants who have verified occupancy or home ownership within the past two years.

Similarly, the country faces widespread aging infrastructure, which has already begun to cause issues as natural disasters test our systems. Moving forward, any infrastructure funds and the agencies that implement and administer those funds should consider implementing policies like those of FEMA and the MDA to ensure that funds are allocated more equitably.

Ultimately the goal needs to be that relief funding makes it to all who need it, especially to the most vulnerable of our communities. We have seen that building back with resiliency in mind by requiring better building codes, requiring flood insurance in flood-prone areas, and requiring homes to be elevated in low-lying areas, saves property and lives when the next storm comes through.

By broadening access to relief programs, more people can be ready for the next big storm when it inevitably hits.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.

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Mark E. Bond is a partner at Balch & Bingham LLP in Gulfport, Miss., and counsels clients on real estate issues. His experience extends to the representation of electric utilities, financial institutions, developers, and corporate clients for commercial closings.

Susan Marie Scaggs is an attorney at Balch & Bingham LLP who works on environmental matters for institutional, private, and agency clients.