In the wake of Hurricane Ida, the Federal Emergency Management Agency timed this decision perfectly: It is changing its policy that requires natural disaster victims living on inherited land to prove they own their homes before receiving government assistance to rebuild.
The question arose in July, when The Washington Post reported that this policy prevented a significant number of Black families, who lived on land passed down through their families from as far back as the Reconstruction era, from receiving aid.
The Post reported that more than a third of Black-owned land in the South is passed down to heirs informally, without property deeds or other legal documents. The practice is a remnant of the Jim Crow years, when Blacks were not allowed to participate in the legal system in Southern states.
Land inherited in that manner legally is the property of all of a family’s direct descendants. Over just a couple of generations, that can add up to a lot of people, making it difficult — if not impossible — to get all of them to sign a document for anything, even FEMA assistance.
“Families living on heirs’ property will now be allowed to self-certify that they own their homes,” the Post reported. “FEMA will also accept letters from local officials and bills for home repairs as proof of ownership.”
The agency was under pressure, from congressmen of both parties, to ease up on its proof-of-ownership requirement. After FEMA announced its change, some lawmakers said they still want to try to get a bill through Congress to give it even more weight.
FEMA’s new guidelines apply retroactively to Aug. 23, loosening the ownership requirements for recent victims of Hurricane Ida and severe flooding in Tennessee.
It’s the right thing to do. The tradition of informal inheritance is out of place in today’s legal and technical world, but it is more understandable when viewed as an action taken — or, more accurately, an action not taken through a lawyer or a courtroom — because there was no alternative.
As we are about to see in Southeast Louisiana, disaster assistance can be one of the more vital operations of the federal government. If a tree fell on the home where someone has lived for 30 years, it is simply wrong to deny them help because of ancient, discriminatory customs.
Fortunately, these rules no longer apply. Black property owners are welcome in any courthouse, and it’s time to start a but steady resolution of this problem.
A House committee has approved a bill to address this issue. But if Congress is serious, it ought to think about fair ways to clean up a century of informal land inheritances. It may be an issue better suited for state legislatures.
Any such legislation would have to thread the needle of eliminating the ownership rights of heirs who have had nothing to do with a piece of property for years, decades or even generations. There would need to be a mechanism to compensate heirs for the loss of ownership, though any failure to contribute toward expenses such as property taxes also should be counted.
Jack Ryan, Enterprise-Journal