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Towards Just Recovery: Assistance to Owners without Formal Titles

Introduction

After the hurricanes Irma and Maria, the lack of adequate response from the local and federal government left thousands of families without assistance to repair or rebuild their homes. CDBG-DR funds may present an opportunity to ensure secure ceilings. However, the lack of clarity in eligibility criteria threatens owners who lack "formal qualifications". The refusal to accept a uniform test-title mechanism with alternate evidence would leave thousands unattended.

- Communities ignored and forgotten by FEMA

FEMA required that eligible applicants in the island have "formal titles" to demonstrate ownership. To make recovery assistance under the Individuals and Households Program depend on this requirement was an unjust and disparate application of federal and Puerto Rican laws, which do not require any legal documents to prove ownership of a property. It is estimated that between 40,000 and 70,000 eligible applicants were denied assistance for this reason.

After a long process led by Ayuda Legal Puerto Rico and other organizations, FEMA recognized applicable legal regulations and accepted a statement under oath prepared by ALPR as alternate proof of ownership. This document does not require assistance from a notary or legal representation but is completed by each applicant. The adoption of this document paved the way for thousands of people who, almost two years after the hurricanes, have not yet received the necessary assistance to repair their homes. Advocates and entities continue to insist that FEMA notify people of their right to use this document.

- History could be repeated

The Action Plan establishes title of property as a criterion for access to housing-repair assistance. Although the Action Plan mentions the "possibility" of accepting an alternate ownership test, this is not enough. We need clarity and that a uniform form be accepted.

CDBG-DR funds allow the government a great deal of flexibility in determining how to invest the money granted. Federal regulations do not establish any requirement as to their ability to decide who is an eligible owner who can benefit from the assistance. Nothing prevents the authorization of alternate proofs of ownership. The Puerto Rico Department of Housing does not need HUD's authorization for this.

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.

- Proof of ownership in the United States and Puerto Rico

FEMA uses federal regulations to define an owner-occupied residence as “one that is 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 definition can be supported by evidence such as receipts, maintenance contracts and affidavits.

In Puerto Rico, the legal framework does not require people to have documentation or evidence that they own a property. People may have interests as owners of inheritance laws or other rights acquired by amount of time they have been in the home as owners. The law does not require a title of ownership to become owner, there are other social, historical and economic factors that can replace a "formal title".

On October 30th, 2018, Ayuda Legal Puerto Rico sent the Puerto Rico Department of Housing a legal analysis and recommendations related to alternative proofs of ownership. The letter was sent along with a declaration model, adjusted to CDBG-DR. The document follows the example of the one accepted by FEMA and used in jurisdictions like Texas. We received the following answer:

 

“We acknowledge receipt. We trust that together we will rebuild Puerto Rico.”

sworn statement
  • The Puerto Rico Department of Housing must adopt a clear policy that accepts alternative evidence of prove ownership. The policy would go hand-in-hand with FEMA’s recent adopt of the statement under oath.
  • The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) must establish uniform guides and documents not to discriminate against owners without formal ownership.
  • The local legislature must adopt a comprehensive public policy that protects the rights of the owners without deeds of ownership, in accordance with the provisions of the Puerto Rico Civil Code.

OUR WORK

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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