Towards Just Recovery: Assistance to Owners without Formal Titles

Dibujo de una casa


In the aftermath of hurricanes Irma and María, lack of adequate response from the local and federal government left thousands of families without the necessary assistance to repair or rebuild their houses. CDBG-DR funds could present an opportunity for communities to ensure dignified housing, adequate infrastructure and economic recovery. Yet, the lack of clarity in the eligibility criteria for the CDBG-DR programs threatens owners who lack formal titles. The refusal to accept alternative proof of title - a mechanism widely adopted in other jurisdictions, FEMA and HUD- could leave nearly 77,000 people without assistance.

- Ignored and forgotten by FEMA

FEMA requested eligible applicants living in the Island "formal titles" to prove their ownership status in order to receive repair assistance under the Individuals and Households Program. This was both a wrongful and disparate application of federal regulations and Puerto Rican laws, which do not require any legal document to evidence ownership and provide alternatives to prove title bearing. It is estimated that nearly 40,000 to 70,000 of eligible applicants were denied assistance.

After a long and arduous advocacy process led by Ayuda Legal Puerto Rico and other non-profits, FEMA recognized the use of a “sworn statement" as an alternate proof of ownership. This has paved the way for thousands of families that, nearly two years after the hurricanes, have yet to receive the necessary assistance to repair their houses. As of today, advocates and entities are still insisting FEMA to notify people about their right to use the sworn statement. Unfortunately, thousands of families and multiple municipalities have already been discouraged and even displaced, making it already too late for them to act.

- History is about to repeat itself, unless we act now.

At times, the CDBG-DR Action Plan drafted by the local Department of Housing and approved by HUD establishes ownership as a criterion to access assistance to repair housing. The Action Plan also mentions in other occasions the "possibility" of accepting alternative proof of ownership. Not only is this insufficient, it could also be dangerous for precarious individuals and communities.

CDBG-DR funds offer Grantees a great amount of flexibility when it comes to determine how to invest the money granted and allows them to carry out a wide range of recovery activities. Federal regulations do not establish any requirements when it comes to its ability to decide who is an eligible owner that can benefit from disaster related assistance. We demand the local Housing Department a clear policy on how it will verify homeownership through alternative methods in order to assess eligibility to these programs or any other that could be established in the future. The Department of Housing does not need HUD’s authorization in order to establish the aforementioned public policy.

- How is ownership defined?

The Stafford Act defines an owner-occupied residence as a residence occupied by: (1) The legal owner; (2) A person who does not hold formal title to the residence and pays no rent, but is responsible for the payment of taxes or maintenance of the residence; or (3) A person who has lifetime occupancy rights with formal title vested in another. This nuanced definition can be supported by diverse mechanisms such as receipts, maintenance contracts and sworn statements.

Several jurisdictions in the US have adopted flexible standards when it comes to verifying homeownership to determine eligibility to CDBG-DR programs. Some jurisdictions include Connecticut, Virginia, North Carolina and Louisiana. Other states, like Texas, have strengthened and streamlined the processes to accept alternative proof of title by approving laws.

Proof of title in Puerto Rico

  • In Puerto Rico, the legal framework does not require people to have documentation or evidence that they are the owners of a property.
  • People can have interests as owners of property because of their status under heirship laws or rights vested by the mere passage of time living in a property as an owner.
  • Besides, the fact that the law does not require a title deed to become an owner under the law, social, historical and economic factors can explain their absence.
  • The Puerto Rico Department of Housing must adopt a clear policy accepting that there are alternatives methods through which applicants can verify ownership. The policy would go hand-in-hand with FEMA’s recent adoption of the self-signed declaration as a viable method of verifying ownership in determining eligibility to assistance programs.


Basic rights in just recovery

Ayuda Legal Puerto Rico has identified basic rights within just recovery. These include the right to dignified housing, the right of people to stay or return to their communities when it is a safe alternative, the right not to suffer discrimination in the processes of reconstruction and recovery, the right to decide where they want to live, the right to a safe environment and the right to effective participation.

Jornada de Participación Comunitaria

The Jornada is a loose-coalition of communities and organizations that demand just recovery. It is geared to educate about CDBG-DR funds, promote human rights advocacy regarding the right to housing and community participation.

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Join our demand towards a just recovery and dignified housing. Read and endorse our demands below.

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ACASE- Alianza Comunitaria Ambiental del Sureste

Alianza de Salud para el Pueblo

Alianza for Progress-Florida

Caras con Causa

Center for Popular Democracy

Centro de Apoyo Mutuo Bucarabones Unido, Inc.

Centro de Apoyo Mutuo de Lares

Centro de Acción Urbana, Comunitaria y Empresarial (CAUCE)

CMTAS Yauco Inc

Clínica de Desarrollo Económico Comunitario de la Escuela de Derecho de la Universidad de Puerto Rico

Clínica de Asistencia Legal de la Facultad de Derecho de la Universidad Interamericana

Clínica de Derechos Humanos de la Facultad de Derecho de la Universidad Interamerican

Clínica de Desarrollo Económico Comunitario de la Escuela de Derecho de la Universidad de Puerto Rico

Coai, Inc.

Coalición de Coaliciones

Cooperativa Agroecológica de Montessori

Comisión de Derechos Civiles de Puerto Rico

Comunidades San Antón & Saint Just

Defend Puerto Rico

Diáspora en Resistencia

Disaster Law Project

G-8: Grupo de las Ocho Comunidades Aledañas al Caño Martín Peña, Inc.

Eli Foundation Puerto Rico

Fair Share Housing Center

Espacios Abiertos

Hispanic Federation

Hope Builders

Iniciativa de Acción Puertorriqueña



Instituto Caribeño de Derechos Humanos

Junta Comunitaria del Casco Urbano de Río Piedras

La Maraña Corp

LatinoJustice PRLDEF

National Low Income Housing Coalition

Our Revolution PR

Oxfam America

Peces Inc.

Alianza de Líderes Rincoeños

Ponce Neighborhood Housing

Pro Bono - Pontificia Universidad Católica de la Universidad de Puerto Rico

PROTESTAmos (Profesorxs Transformándonos en Solidaridad Tornada en Acción), UPR-Mayagüez

Proyecto Matria

Puerta de Tierra Camina

Red de Fundaciones de Puerto Rico

SoCal For Puerto Rico

Somos Dign@s

Taller Creando Sin Encargos

Taller de Planificaciõn Social

Taller Salud

United for a New Economy

Urbe Apie

VAMOS Puerto Rico

Instituto Universitario para el Desarrollo de las Comunidades

Junta Comunitaria de Residentes Los Usubales, Inc.

Colectiva Feminista en Construcción

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