The Lack of Proof of Ownership in Puerto Rico Is Crippling Repairs in the Aftermath of Hurricane Maria (2023)

When Hurricane Maria made landfall in September 2017, it devastated the tiny island of Puerto Rico. The level of damage proved far more severe than the territory’s government could bear. More than a year and a half following the devastating hurricane, thousands of people in the U.S. territory are still living in damaged homes.

In Puerto Rico, there are about 1,237,180 million homes. Of those, 1,138,843 (92 percent) were damaged by the hurricane. And of those damaged, 1,118,862 (98 percent) applied for the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) Individuals and Households Program (IHP) as of May 2018. These figures came from Ron Roth, a FEMA spokesperson who noted to NBC News that the number of approved applications totaled 452,290—with 335,748 denied.

This means that about 40 percent of those who self-identified as being in need were not awarded assistance. Although many people have decided to rebuild on their own, a large percentage of these U.S. citizens still live with blue tarps over their houses, as they lack the funds necessary to repair their roofs. Unfortunately, this leaves them vulnerable to inclement weather—especially during hurricane season. Without a way to protect their homes from further inclement weather, families stand the risk of losing even more.

This concern has alarmed many who note that, should another hurricane hit, almost two years after Maria, many of these affected families still do not have a safe place to live. In light of this, why is it that FEMA rejected hundreds of thousands of assistance applications? This article addresses the current state of housing in Puerto Rico and how the lack of proving ownership may be crippling the territory’s recovery. In addition, this article will summarize some policy responses proposed by advocates.

Housing in Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico has a history of informal construction. Anywhere between 585,000–715,000 (45–55 percent) of homes and commercial buildings in Puerto Rico have been constructed without building permits or following land use codes, according to a 2018 study of the Puerto Rico Builders Association. Furthermore, the vice president of the Society for Puerto Rican Planners, David Carrasquillo, estimates that 260,000 homes in Puerto Ricodo not have titles or deeds. The reasons, to be discussed in the following paragraphs, are varied.

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There is undoubtedly a history of what is commonly referred to as “illegal” home building, although known as “rescuing” land by those who have engaged in the practice. Because of their lack of resources, many Puerto Ricans in the past have taken to building homes on vacant land—whether they own it or not. This land often turns out to be public land own by the state. About 45 percent of Puerto Ricans, according to the 2017 five-year estimates American Community Survey, live below the poverty level.

Though there still may be cases in which citizens “illegally” build houses on land that is not theirs, much of the issue related to not having titles is not because of illegality, but rather it has to do with a lack of historical documentation. This results from the fact that in Puerto Rico many people live on land that has been subdivided generationally in their families, though they never went through a formal process of subdividing the land.

Similarly, many heirs have not gone through the process of declaring inheritance. In Puerto Rico, it is common to see someone occupying a home still under the name of deceased parents or family members because the new occupant never resolved the ownership of the property. Furthermore, for many in Puerto Rico, the proper documentation is not commonplace when a family acquires the property. One might have bought land lawfully and have no title merely because the person who owned it before did not have one.

For these reasons, hundreds of thousands of people in the nation are living on land to which they do not hold a formal title. In many ways, this does not pose a problem in day-to-day life, as other individuals may not claim the land. Most families have decided not to resolve these issues because it can cost thousands of dollars in lawyers’ fees, take a lot of time to find adequate information, and requires them to visit many governmental offices, which might be towns apart to “solve” what many considered a nonissue.

Local and Federal
Ownership Laws

FEMA’s adherence to strict homeownership regulations precludes individuals living in these homes from gaining access to federal aid. As noted above, of the 1.1 million households that applied, only about 40 percent (452,290) were approved, representing $1.39 billion in grants. This means that about 60 percent were not approved either because they were deemed ineligible (335,748) or they were simply denied (330,824). FEMA sent letters to applicants with 41 reasons or codes for denying aid, from insufficient damages to pre-existing conditions.

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According to organizations such as Ayuda Legal Huracán María and Fundación Fondo de Acceso a la Justicia, FEMA’s number one reason for denying households aid was precisely because of their inability to prove ownership. Although the number of those dismissed from IHP because of not being able to show evidence of ownership has not been made public, Ayuda Legal Huracán María has a record of 48,000 families in Puerto Rico living on untitled property, affected by the disaster, and denied from assistance.

One of the primary reasons FEMA has denied these applications is because of its inability to recognize Puerto Rico’s Civil Code and property rights framework, which derives from Spanish law. Under Puerto Rican law, one can be the legal owner of a property without having a formal title, presenting deeds, and so on. However, FEMA asked for such documentation to obtain assistance, leaving thousands unable to apply or receive help. The issue proves more complicated than most may think. In many ways, FEMA’s policies look to avoid unlawful claims by those who do not own property. On the other hand, they punish hardworking citizens who rightfully own their homes, but lack the documents to prove it.

However, these issues might be explained by a closer look at the manner in which FEMA provides aid to owners as established in section 408 of the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act (Stafford Act, 1974,42 U.S.C. 5151 et seq.). The Stafford Act, under the Emergency Management and Assistance, 44 C.F.R. § 206.111 (2018), defines owner-occupied residence as a home occupied by (1) the legal owner; (2) a person who does not hold formal title to the residence and pays no rent, but is responsible for the payment of taxes or maintenance of the residence; or (3) a person who has lifetime occupancy rights with formal title vested in another. It is important to note the striking similarities between the Puerto Rico Civil Rights Code and the Stafford Act in which one should not have to provide a title to be considered an owner.

The National Low-Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC), through their Disaster Housing Recovery Coalition (DHRC) in collaboration with local organizations in Puerto Rico such as Ayuda Legal Huracán María and Fundación Fondo de Acceso a la Justicia, have been keeping an eye on the situation and have raised concerns to FEMA, noting that FEMA should provide an alternative way of proving ownership in accordance to both the local and the federal laws, where a title is not needed.

The Declarative Statement

Because FEMA requires that some form of ownership documentation be produced, thousands of individuals lost access to the aid they need to repair their homes. For these households, then, there may be no proof other than their own word that they own their property. A sworn declaration was created by the DHRC of the NLIHC in order to help those individuals without deeds or titles. In this statement, the owner needs to provide their personal information and an address of the property that needs repairs.

Given that many heirs occupy homes and, as a result, have a proprietary interest, but are not mentioned in the deed of the property, they could use the declarative statement to qualify for assistance. This means that a person has a proprietary interest in the home, but the traditional legal steps to transfer ownership have not been taken. This also applies for those families who have not subdivided their land, those who bought property without a title, and those who took a building or a vacant lot where the owners have not come forward to make claims.

In the declarative statement, people needed to swear that no other person can claim ownership rights to the property or that after an effort to locate rightful owners they could not be found. The owner was encouraged to provide alternative documentation instead of a title such as tax receipts, home insurance, a utility bill, a letter of credit from the utility company, receipts from repairing the property, or any other documentation that would support that they were currently occupying and maintaining the home.

The DHRC of the NLIHC worked with FEMA to craft the language of the marketing behind the effort, despite it not being directly related to the agency. It is a move the DHRC believes could help relieve the burden felt by Puerto Rican citizens, as these sworn documents allow those who have been denied assistance the opportunity to prove their ownership.

However, as many Puerto Ricans remain in the dark about this form, its utility has been marginal. Because the sworn declaration is not a FEMA document, FEMA issued a press release, but it did not take additional measures to raise awareness of the document among those who have been denied assistance. Until now, Ayuda Legal Huracán María, Fundación Fondo de Acceso a la Justicia, among other organizations in the island that are part of DHRC, has been promoting the sworn statement on their own as well as informing homeowners at workshops, through news and social media, as well as at Disaster Recovery Centers across the island.

Since October 2018, the DHRC has been laying out the guidelines on how this education campaign could be accomplished. This included “educating Disaster Recovery Center (DCR) staff and staff handling appeals about the availability of the sworn declaration, making the sworn declaration available at the DRC, and sending another letter to those denied assistance with a copy of, or instructions on how to access, the sworn declaration.” Using these recommendations, it may be possible to ameliorate the problem of inequitable access to repair funds in Puerto Rico.


The current situation in Puerto Rico is unsustainable. With a vast swath of the population living without proper shelter, the territory’s citizens are at risk of increased injury or damage in the event of any future hurricanes. The extent of the issue can prove alarming to outside viewers. A look at the nation reveals a populace still reeling from the effects of Hurricane Maria nearly two years later. Ineffectual attempts by FEMA to alleviate the situation have left people living in unsafe and dire conditions.

FEMA denials mostly stem from homeowners’ inability to produce deeds, titles, or other forms of documents proving that they have ownership of their homes. These requirements, however, prove too hard for many Puerto Ricans to overcome because, though they are not transactions that are costly, they are not part of the culture.

Because of this, many—but most notably the DRHC of the NLIHC—have called into question the utility of FEMA’s restrictive policies that prevent hundreds of thousands from getting the aid that they need. In some cases, families desperate for a way to repair their homes have made multiple appeals unsuccessfully to the federal organization for rebuilding assistance.

Advocacy groups have begun to speak out in the hopes that FEMA will change restrictive policies to better consider the context of the island. By recognizing the history of the territory, the building and cultural practices there, they argue, FEMA can better accommodate the needs of a highly at-risk population.

Even though advocates have attempted to address the problem by designing a sworn statement in collaboration with FEMA to help homeowners get the required documentation, more action is needed from FEMA’s side. This slow-going process for making sure that homeowners receive the FEMA assistance they need has left many wondering when these households will have a safe place to call home.

Ivis Garcia is an assistant professor in City and Metropolitan Planning at the University of Utah. She is involved with the National Puerto Rican Agenda, the Disaster Housing Recovery Coalition, and Centro's IDEAComun, all of which promote Puerto Rico's recovery.


What happened to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria? ›

Hurricane Maria's rains triggered ruthless flooding throughout Puerto Rico's mountainous regions. Rivers rose 30, 40 and 50 feet, washing away roads and bridges that cut off entire communities.

How much of Puerto Rico was destroyed by Hurricane Maria? ›

He later estimated that Maria caused at least US$ 90 billion in damage. Approximately 80 percent of the territory's agriculture was destroyed by the hurricane; losses are estimated at $780 million. Plantains, bananas and coffee farms were severely damaged and more than 90% of Puerto Rico's poultry was destroyed.

Has Puerto Rico recovered from Hurricane Maria? ›

Puerto Rico's infrastructure, like the hospital on Vieques, was never fully rebuilt after Hurricane Maria. Though more than $20 billion was committed to Puerto Rico's recovery, only a fraction of that has been spent on actual recovery projects. This program aired on October 26, 2022.

How was Puerto Rico affected by the hurricane? ›

In addition to the electricity grid—Puerto Rico's roads, hospitals, schools, water systems, and other critical systems were damaged by Maria and Irma. FEMA has obligated about $28 billion to help the island recover from this damage.

Is Puerto Rico back to normal after hurricane? ›

Don't the news from the 2022 hurricane season discourage you from traveling to Puerto Rico. The resilient island bounced back quickly, especially in tourist areas, after Hurricane Fiona hit in September 2022. The San Juan Airport was fully operational within just a couple of days after Fiona made landfall.

What is Puerto Rico struggling with? ›

The debate over Puerto Rico's statehood remains as relevant as ever, as the island struggles with the combined effects of economic depression, shrinking population, debt crisis and bankruptcy, natural disasters, the COVID-19 pandemic, and government mismanagement.

Why did FEMA fail Puerto Rico? ›

The Puerto Rico government lacked a formal records management system to track commodities received from FEMA and distributed to the municipalities.

How did Hurricane Maria affect Puerto Rico's economy? ›

The main causes for Puerto Rico's high rate of migration are the current economic crisis and effects of natural disasters on local infrastructure. According to the Associated Press, Hurricane Maria in 2017 created over $100 billion in damages, which has only exacerbated the negative state of the economy (Coto, 2021).

How many houses were destroyed in Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico? ›

Emilio Colón Zavala, president of the Puerto Rico Builders Association, says the devastating storm damaged 250,000 housing units, including 35,000 that were destroyed.

Is Puerto Rico in decline? ›

The largest U.S. territory, Puerto Rico, has 3.3 million people and Spanish and West Indian traditions tracing back to Columbus.
America's island territories are shrinking.
U.S. Virgin Islands−18.1% −18.1% −18.1%
Puerto Rico−11.8% −11.8% −11.8%
American Samoa−10.5% −10.5% −10.5%
9 more rows
Sep 23, 2022

Has Puerto Rico recovered for travel? ›

Puerto Rico may have been hit hard, but it recovered and there are plenty or reasons to visit Puerto Rico right now. It is open for business and the island is ready to welcome tourists to the Island of Enchantment.

Why is Puerto Rico shaking so much? ›

Puerto Rico sits on a hotbed of seismic activity. Puerto Rico is on an active plate boundary and earthquakes are a common threat. The U.S. Geological Survey noted that the island is nestled between the North American and Caribbean tectonic plates.

What part of Puerto Rico was hit hardest by the hurricane? ›

Fiona dumped more than 32 inches on the Ponce region, where the island's second-largest city is located, and prompted emergency crews to rescue 400 people from flooding in Salinas, on the southern coast. The rainfall and hurricane winds proved too much for Puerto Rico's decrepit electrical grid.

How many times has Puerto Rico been hit by a hurricane? ›

How many times has Puerto Rico been hit by hurricanes? Between 1867 and 2022, Puerto Rico received the direct impact of 30 hurricanes, including 9 major hurricanes above category 3.

Does Puerto Rico qualify for FEMA? ›

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico – The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) approved more than $44 million for assistance to individuals and more than $96 million for emergency work in response to hurricanes Irma and Maria.
FEMA Approves More Than $140 Million in Assistance to Puerto Rico.
Release DateRelease Number
Release Date October 11, 2017Release Number DR-4339-PR NR 009

How long did Puerto Rico go without power after Hurricane Maria? ›

When Hurricane Maria made landfall on Puerto Rico, in September 2017, the storm devastated the island's electricity grid. It took 328 days, or roughly 11 months, for the island to restore power to all of the customers who lost it during the hurricane, which marked the longest blackout in U.S. history.

What caused the island of Puerto Rico to shut down? ›

Less than two weeks after Hurricane Fiona made landfall on Puerto Rico, triggering an islandwide blackout for 1.5 million customers, power has been restored to 84% of residents, officials said.

What is the current status of Puerto Rico? ›

The political status of Puerto Rico is that of an unincorporated territory of the United States. As such, the island of Puerto Rico is neither a sovereign nation nor a U.S. state. Because of that ambiguity, the territory, as a polity, lacks certain rights but enjoys certain benefits that other polities have or lack.

Has Puerto Rico's power been restored? ›

High electricity costs

But while most of the island may have power restored, customers still need to contend with crippling high energy costs. Data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration shows that commercial customers in Puerto Rico on average pay 29.4 cents per kilowatt hour as of June 2022.

How many people are still without power in Puerto Rico? ›

Sept. 21, 2022, at 8:01 a.m.

What did the US do to Puerto Rico after the war? ›

In December, the Treaty of Paris was signed, ending the Spanish-American War and officially approving the cession of Puerto Rico to the United States.


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