Proyecto Matria, Miraflores

 


Attorney Fermín Arraiza of Access to Justice Fund Foundation is one of the lawyers that are helping people like Don Roberto to formalize ownership of their homes. Photos Xavier García.

In the nine months since Hurricanes Irma and Maria impacted Puerto Rico, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has denied 80,000 requests for assistance because applicants can't verify homeownership, according to data provided to El Nuevo Dia newspaper by Adi G. Martinez, executive director of the Access to Justice Fund Foundation (FFAJ by its Spanish acronym).

This has become a major obstacle to the recovery of the island since 55 percent of residences in Puerto Rico do not have title deeds, cites Primera Hora (http://www.primerahora.com/noticias/puerto-rico/nota/anuncianserviciosgratuitosparapersonasquenotienentitulosdepropiedad-1285428/). Many people have lived for decades in homes inherited from their families or built on land that was given to them informally, among other circumstances.

"The proliferation of informal property in Puerto Rico existed before Hurricane Maria, and is the result of high levels of poverty and the high costs of completing these legal processes," explained Martinez.

Over the next months, approximately 1,600 people will receive free legal and notary assistance in order to obtain the documents required by FEMA through "Legal Ownership Assistance", a project financed by the Funders Network of Puerto Rico in alliance with the Ford Foundation and the Center for Disaster Philanthropy.

"A home is often the most important asset that poor families possess. If they can’t rebuild it, they literally lose the roof over their heads," asserted Janice Petrovich, executive director of the Puerto Rico Foundations Network.

Thanks to the support from these foundations, a team of 40 notaries, students and volunteers from the FFAJ and the Legal Aid Clinic of the Law School of the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) are visiting the 78 municipalities of the island providing legal assistance to people whose homes were affected by the hurricanes. This team will draft affidavits, sworn statements and other documents to allow beneficiaries to formalize ownership of their homes and receive federal assistance to repair them.

Alongside this direct legal assistance, the UPR's Law School is conducting research on the types of ownership problems facing Puerto Ricans, including inheritance issues, non-segregated lands, and rescue of public or private lands.

"The equitable recovery of Puerto Rico requires that we actively protect the housing and property rights of its citizens, as well as guarantee them the resources to rebuild their homes and communities," signals Jerry Maldonado, Senior Program Officer of the Ford Foundation.

The deadline to apply to FEMA was June 19, with a period of 60 additional days to appeal any decision.

This team will draft affidavits, sworn statements and other documents to allow beneficiaries to formalize ownership of their homes and receive federal assistance to repair them.