Following deadly tornadoes that ripped through Alabama, FEMA sent a representative to a rural disaster zone to find out why more people weren’t applying for grants worth up to $72,000. The FEMA rep, Chris Baker, discovered the long-held tradition of informal land ownership is blocking families in need from getting aid.
Jim Crow laws blocked Black people from participating in the legal system to obtain documents like wills and deeds, thus creating informal inheritance practice known as heirs’ property. This type of land ownership, the Department of Agriculture said is “the leading cause of Black involuntary land loss,” The Post reported. Without formal documents proving land ownership, many Black families can’t apply for federal loans and grants –– including FEMA disaster aid, which requires applicants to prove they own their property before grant funds can be awarded.
An analysis by The Post shows that the number of applicants that get rejected in majority-Black counties is twice as high as the national rejection average of two percent. In some parts of the Deep South, FEMA has rejected up to 25% of applicants because they can’t prove they own the land. Black farmers have similarly been cut out of lending programs and aid because of heirs' property ownership.
FEMA has been dealing with this dilemma since 2005 when an estimated 20,000 heirs’ property owners were denied disaster aid in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. In 2017, after Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico, FEMA faced the issue again, denying over 80,000 applications because of land title issues.
According to The Post, there’s no legal basis to support requiring disaster survivors to prove they own their land or homes, but that FEMA created the rule to prevent scammers from receiving the aid. The agency created a pathway for landowners in Puerto Rico to self-certify homeownership in 2018, but the program hasn’t extended to Black families living in the South.
President Joe Biden instructed FEMA to prioritize areas that are “too often overlooked” in getting disaster aid, but the way the rules are written right now, many of the families living in these areas –– where climate change is already disproportionately having an impact –– won’t get the help they need because of the racism of America’s past.