Deadly storms are having a greater impact on people of color, owners of mobile homes, and those living in poverty in 2019. According to research from the University of Texas, millions of Americans lack home titles, which are a prerequisite for accessing Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) aid and insurance payouts after a natural disaster.
Without these financial lifelines, entire communities can be destroyed after a natural disaster because they can’t repair homes. Action News reports that the lack of property documents is a structural problem that often goes undetected. These issues typically only come up after a natural disaster when families need assistance.
Unfortunately, it’s difficult for experts to gauge the exact size of this problem. This is because informal housing arrangements are hidden from land registries and banks. Homeowners may not even know they lack the documents they need until they need them.
This issue has arisen after almost every recent disaster in the last few years. After Hurricane Maria in 2017, up to 60% of FEMA assistance claims were rejected because property owners couldn’t produce home titles.
“We started getting a lot of denials, for many reasons, but the one that stood out to us was ‘ownership not verified,'” said Adi Martinez Roman. Roman is the executive director of Fundacion Fondo de Acceso a la Justicia, a legal aid group that set up an emergency fund to help Maria victims apply for aid.
“I’m talking about thousands and thousands and thousands of denials,” said Martinez Roman.
Due to the property laws in Puerto Rico, it’s estimated that up to half a million people don’t own a formal title to their hand. Nearly two years after the hurricane, homeowners from Puerto Rico are still trying to appeal to FEMA.
“I still have people calling the foundation, saying they are desperate because they haven’t gotten any help,” said Martinez Roman.
Martinez Roman says one of her clients, Wanda Lopez-Esquilin, had been the heir to her property but didn’t have the documents to prove it. Lopez-Esquilin circulated a WhatsApp video to show her destroyed home including a blue tarp covering the roof and a pile of hurricane debris in her yard. A local church help her rebuild her roof, Martinez Roman says, but not FEMA.
Owners of manufactured housing are also at risk during natural disasters. Manufactured housing is a type of prefabricated housing that’s assembled in factories and later transported to sites for use. Manufactured housing parts may be made with drywall, steel, and reaction injection molding, which is a process where molded polyurethane parts are made.
Because manufactured homes aren’t considered real property, even if you maintain trees, shrubs, and other landscaping on your property to boost value by 14%, that value doesn’t help with FEMA applications. This is a problem for many Americans in the face of the rising real estate prices. Currently, the average time to sell a property in many markets right now is between 6 and 12 months.
Compared to the 6% market growth in the global specialty gases market by 2024, just the national growth in manufactured homes has increased by 60%. This is because mobile homes, compared to real estate, is cheaper but offers just as much space as a single-family home.
Following the recent wildfires in California, mobile home owners were shut out from post-disaster assistance because they lacked housing titles or they possessed fraudulent documents. However, mobile homeowners aren’t the only ones at risk for lacking the necessary property documents.
Would-be homeowners who construct their own houses or convert garages into single-family homes may also not have the proper documents to prove they own their property.
To provide some form of assistance, several states have passed legislation to make it easier for people to transfer their proper using legal paperwork called affidavits of heirship. It’s recommended that property owners look into this type of paperwork now rather than later with risks of flooding, tornadoes, and hurricanes on the horizon.