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Maloney Demands FEMA Improve Housing Assistance Procedures After Agency Denies Housing to Hundreds of Thousands in Puerto Rico

Sep 7, 2018
Press Release

WASHINGTON– In a letter, dated September 5, 2018, Representative Sean Patrick Maloney (NY-18) demanded that Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Administrator Brock Long improve his agency’s system for validating homeownership and for notifying homeowners to changes in the application process after over 335,000 Puerto Rican homeowners were denied disaster recovery housing assistance. FEMA has reportedly applied an inconsistent approval process for verifying homeownership among Puerto Ricans who lost their homes during Hurricane Maria, including the denial of housing assistance to homeowners who produced the deeds to their now-destroyed homes. FEMA has recently approved the use of “sworn statements” to help address this issue, however, it has failed to notify homeowners who were previously denied assistance.

“Because of FEMA’s incompetence, thousands of people died and hundreds of thousands more have been unable to start rebuilding their lives,” said Rep. Maloney. “We’ve got all these Americans who should be eligible for help after their homes were destroyed, but bureaucratic red tape has gotten in their way – it’s time for FEMA to get it together and start being helpful.”

Like in many economically-depressed areas of the world, homeownership in Puerto Rico is not always demonstrated through the possession of official titles or deeds even though many of the existing structures have existed for decades. FEMA has struggled to respond to that reality, and has by its own admission, denied 335,748 applications for assistance as of the early summer. FEMA has also reportedly denied housing assistance even to homeowners who produced the official legal documentation FEMA traditionally requires.

In May, Rep. Maloney sent another letter to FEMA Administrator Brock Long asking the agency to reconsider its decision to deny Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló’s request for assistance through the Disaster Housing Assistance Program (DHAP). The DHAP program was created in response to the myriad emergency response failures associated with the response to Hurricane Katrina, specifically for low-income residents who were displaced from their homes. The program provides time-limited rental subsidies and case management to households affected by different disasters. The contours of the program change based on the need of local residents and the nature of the disaster affecting them.

 

The text of the letter is available below and an original version is available here.

I write to insist that FEMA improve its methods for evaluating homeownership for Puerto Rican families working to return to their homes. I have written to you previously about the denial of Disaster Housing Assistance Program (DHAP) support for Puerto Ricans and yet the very real and desperate housing needs of hundreds of thousands of these citizens continues to go unaddressed by your agency. I appreciate your recent work with outside groups to improve your processes for assessing homeownership status, and I ask that you expand this work as well as notify families whose applications were initially denied that new criteria for evaluation are available.

I have recently learned that more than 335,000 applications for disaster assistance funding to rebuild homes have been denied and that more than 43,000 of these cases have been appealed. It is my understanding that the primary reason that these applications have been denied is the lack of proof of homeownership. I’ve also learned that your agency has applied an inconsistent and arbitrary approval process - sometimes denying applications when a deed was present and sometimes approving applications with a sworn affidavit. People are struggling to get back into their homes because of your agency’s bureaucratic mistakes. That’s unacceptable.

I am encouraged to learn of the Office of Chief Counsel’s work with Latino Justice and the National Low Income Housing Coalition to develop “sworn statements” as an attainable means to allow Puerto Ricans to demonstrate homeownership. It is my understanding that a similar process was used successfully in Texas. I encourage you to notify families whose applications for disaster assistance have been denied of these “sworn statements” so that they may appeal their cases. I also encourage you to expedite and otherwise improve the process.

Things as simple as ensuring that FEMA employees sent to evaluate Puerto Rican homes speak Spanish and understand how Puerto Ricans demonstrate ownership of their homes is not courtesy, its crucial. Puerto Ricans are Americans. They deserve the same respect due any other American who has suffered from the effects of natural disaster. Your agency has been charged with ensuring that relief is provided in a timely and effective manner to our fellow citizens and I implore you to take immediate steps to improve the disaster assistance funding application process to meet the unique needs of the Puerto Rican people.