April 16, 2019 / 2:19 PM / 2 months ago

'Falling through the cracks': vulnerable U.S. homeowners overlooked after disasters

WASHINGTON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - It was the middle of the night when Yvonne Rawhouser’s neighbor woke her up to warn her that a nearby hillside was aflame.

The wildfire that had been raging through northern California’s wine country in October 2017 was closing in on the mobile home park where Rawhouser had lived for decades.

“I grabbed my cat in the cat box,” recalled Rawhouser, 60, a cancer survivor who suffers from renal failure. “We thought we’d be evacuated for a few hours and then come home.”

Instead, the fire destroyed most of the 160 houses in the Journey’s End seniors’ park in Santa Rosa - with the dozens of remaining homes rendered unliveable, Rawhouser told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

In part because her home is still standing, Rawhouser has not been able to access insurance payouts or federal assistance, a year and a half after the fires. 

Stories like Rawhouser’s underscore nationwide gaps in the post-disaster social safety net for people in non-traditional housing situations, such as those living in mobile or rental homes and the homeless, say housing rights advocates.

What happened to the Journey’s End residents is typical of whenever communities are hit by disaster, said Larry Florin, chief executive of Burbank Housing, an affordable housing provider working with victims of California’s recent wildfires.

Even if residents of a mobile home community own their homes, they typically do not own the ground it sits on and they rely on the park’s privately-run utilities, said Florin.

He noted that the Journey’s End sewage, electricity and water systems were all destroyed, making it economically unfeasible to rebuild the park.

And almost no residents have received insurance or federal assistance to allow them to move somewhere else.

“They fell through the cracks,” he said.

PROVING OWNERSHIP

The wildfires that spread through parts of California in 2017 and 2018 devastated areas that have almost no affordable housing, said Ilene J. Jacobs, director of advocacy at California Rural Legal Assistance, a non-profit.

In those areas, mobile home parks play a key role in housing farm workers, elderly people and other low-income communities, she said.

But, “there is no effective aid-funded program that will help rebuild a mobile home park or adequately relocate people to a new park and replace the individual mobile homes.”

Further, mobile home residents often are not able to access the post-disaster assistance available to other homeowners, Jacobs said, because of government requirements around proving ownership of their property.

Her clients and others have run into obstacles for a litany of reasons, including not having the titles to their mobile homes or having titles that were fraudulent, she said.

In some cases, the house’s identifying decal number had melted in a fire, making it more difficult to prove ownership. 

A spokesman for the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) said the agency has a responsibility to verify property ownership.

“By doing this, we make sure the person requesting assistance is the rightful owner, that they resided in the property before and during the event, and to avoid duplicate applications,” said Daniel Llargues.

Keeping titles, deeds or property tax statements somewhere safe is a key way of preparing for a potential disaster, he said in a phone interview.

‘FLOUNDERING’

Asked what steps FEMA is taking to address the issue of ownership in informal housing, agency spokeswoman Lizzie Litzow pointed to new guidance, published in March. 

It says residents of “non-traditional” housing such as tents can access rental and other assistance if their occupancy can be verified.

But they are not eligible for repair or replacement costs, according to the guidance.

Mobile homeowners, like other homeowners, are eligible for repairs not covered by insurance, while renters can access various types of assistance, it says. 

But “FEMA continues to deny assistance to individuals who own their homes but who may have not have a formal title,” said Sarah Mickelson, senior director of public policy at the National Low Income Housing Coalition, a non-profit.

Advocates for the poor have been highlighting such problems for decades, but policymakers have only recently begun to take notice, she said, spurred by the effects of climate change and an ongoing national housing crisis.

During a March U.S. House committee hearing on ways to improve the post-disaster assistance system, Democratic U.S. representative Rashida Tlaib said access to disaster-recovery funds is “incredibly hard for people with the greatest needs”.

The hearing focused on Hurricane Maria’s devastating tear through Puerto Rico in September 2017, which damaged or destroyed more than 166,000 homes, according to the Puerto Rico government.

One legacy of the U.S. territory’s Spanish colonial past is that a person does not have to hold a formal deed to be the rightful owner of a house or piece of land, said Adi Martinez-Roman, head of the Fundacion Fondo de Acceso a la Justicia in San Juan.

As a result, she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, an estimated half-million people had no property title when Hurricane Maria hit.

“All of these people started applying for benefits, and they started to get denied because ... (FEMA was) asking for proof of ownership in the form of a title,” she said.

Eventually FEMA allowed people to assert ownership via notarized statements and later accepted a template form created by legal aid workers, Martinez-Roman said.

Still, in its recovery plan, the Puerto Rican government noted that “high denial rates have left hundreds of thousands without critical assistance” and outlined a $40 million program to verify and provide property titles.

That funding was approved in March, but has since been thrown into question after U.S. President Donald Trump expressed scepticism toward additional disaster assistance for Puerto Rico.

Meanwhile, Martinez-Roman said, the island’s landscape remains dotted with the blue tarps of damaged homes, the owners somewhere, waiting to get on with their lives.

In California, Rawhouser knows the feeling, as she awaits the resolution of legal and political processes that are out of her hands.

“They just have us out here floundering,” she said. “My whole life is chaos.”

Reporting by Carey L. Biron; Editing by Jumana Farouky and Zoe Tabary. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit news.trust.org

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