How the Title Industry Can Help Puerto Rico Disaster Recovery

August 21, 2018

When hurricanes Irma and Maria swept across Puerto Rico last September, hundreds of thousands of homes were left damaged and destroyed. In the aftermath, many Puerto Ricans turned to FEMA disaster assistance grants to help them rebuild.

By early May, FEMA had received over 1.1 million registrations for disaster assistance. However as many as 335,748 applicants were deemed ineligible, mostly because they could not provide the required documents to prove they have legal title to their homes.

For some hurricane victims, it is a matter of getting access to the necessary documents. The problem seems to be largely caused by a long-standing informal approach to acquiring and transferring land. Many residents either do not have the resources to record a deed of title or appreciate the importance of the process.

According to The New York Times, only 65 percent of properties on the island are registered with the government. Further, the Puerto Rican Association of Builders estimates that as much as “55 percent of the island’s infrastructure … was informally built, including 700,000 houses and commercial buildings."

This is where ALTA comes in. A number of policy initiatives are underway to address this problem in Puerto Rico as well as in future disasters. As real estate professionals with expertise in the practice, maintenance and protection of public land records, ALTA members have a duty to be at the table to inform policymakers how to address these problems.

Policymakers have taken a number of steps to address the issue. At the federal level, FEMA in some cases has begun accepting signed self-declarations as evidence of ownership. Also, House and Senate Democrats have introduced the Housing Victims of Major Disasters Act (S.2996, H.R.5474) to address the issue by, in part, expanding the types of documents that could be used by disaster victims to qualify for housing relief.

On the island, the Puerto Rico Department of Housing has outlined a $25 million “Title Clearance Program” in its disaster recovery action plan. Separately, the broader Puerto Rican government has included the creation of a “database of housing and home ownership information” in its draft Economic and Disaster Recovery Plan. Since the hurricane, the government has also granted 62 property titles to homeowners who’d previously not held title to those properties. This is a policy approach Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló wants to expand to give “48,000 illegal settlers legal title to their land.”

ALTA’s Puerto Rico workgroup will review both the proposals put forward by the Puerto Rican government as well as the Major Disasters Act, leveraging ALTA members’ unique expertise to provide critical feedback.

For more information, or if you would like to nominate someone to participate in ALTA’s Puerto Rico workgroup, contact Rob Robilliard, ALTA’s manager of government affairs, at rrobilliard@alta.org.


Contact ALTA at 202-296-3671 or communications@alta.org.

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