José López doesn't have a deed for the little house at the edge of a dairy farm where he was raised and still lives — only the stories his grandfather told him about how the house came to be.
It began with an agreement between gentlemen 39 years ago. His grandfather, a foreman on the farm, needed a house for his recently divorced daughter, López's mother. So he asked the farm's owner if he could have a little corner of the sprawling estate to build her one.
"My grandfather worked on the farm for 44 years," López said, "and his boss was a good man. He said yes."
In the four decades since, the family kept the modest house up – adjusting the floorplan, rebuilding the balcony.
"But Hurricane Maria wiped that away," López said. He knew the storm would be a monster. He didn't expect it to tear off the roof. He covered the gaping hole using wood pallets, tarps, and recycled sheet metal. Then a week after the storm, he climbed the hill behind the house in search of cell reception. Using his phone, he filled out an application for help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, hoping for a grant to repair the roof quickly.
But six months after Hurricane Maria devastated this island commonwealth, he says FEMA has yet to approve his application. The problem is that gentlemen's agreement 39 years ago.
"They say I have to justify why I don't have title to the house," he said. "But back then, when people made agreements, all that mattered was their word and a handshake."
Puerto Rico still has huge challenges ahead, key among them the task of repairing hundreds of thousands of homes that the hurricane damaged or destroyed. One impediment to that goal is the fact that FEMA has denied many families crucial federal repair grants because, like José López, they've been unable to prove ownership of their homes.
The situation is not without precedent. Some families in New Orleans faced a similar problem after Hurricane Katrina flooded that city in 2005. But in Puerto Rico it is a problem of unprecedented scope, because the island's government estimates that more than half of houses here are "informal" – meaning they were built without permits, and lack title.
Of the nearly 1.2 million applications for help that FEMA has received in Puerto Rico, roughly 60 percent have been found ineligible for what the agency calls Individual and Household grants, which can but do not necessarily include money to repair storm damage. The reasons for ineligibility are many and the agency did not provide specific denial numbers. But in an email to NPR, FEMA confirmed that a main reason it has denied these grants in Puerto Rico has been applicants' inability to verify that they own the homes for which they are claiming damage.
José López says he's spent months trying to get FEMA the documents its workers have told him they need before approving a grant for repairs. Last week, a lawyer helped him write an affidavit swearing the house is his. As he's waited, he's kept making patchwork repairs. His roof looks better now, but he still has to move his mattress to the living room when it rains, to avoid getting wet.
Despite steps FEMA says it has taken to ease its documentation requirements – such as by accepting sworn affidavits from people who lack a deed – housing advocates say many people are still being denied, often for inconsistent reasons that even lawyers are struggling to sort out.
"I've seen many people being denied three or four times, and just deciding it's not worth the stress," said Sarah Delgado, an attorney volunteering with a legal aid group that's helping people appeal their denials. "They're getting discouraged, and they're just giving up."
Many people have few other options for rebuilding, she said.
The magnitude of the problem reflects an array of historical, social, and legal factors that have found perfect confluence in post-disaster Puerto Rico. On one side, there's the federal agency charged with providing billions of dollars in disaster relief but also with being vigilant against fraudulent claims, deploying a long list of eligibility and documentation requirements to guard against them. They're requirements that many Puerto Ricans can't meet.
On the other, there's an island territory unlike any U.S. state, where property law is different and a majority of houses lack title or proper construction permits. Many cases resemble Jose López's – a house built on a friend or family member's property with their permission. Then there are the tens of thousands of families who live in what began as squatter settlements but over time have taken on the trappings of more formal communities. It's a phenomenon that politicians have often turned a blind eye to, often even abetted, because the proliferation of informal housing has released pressure on demands for affordable housing.
"It's something that has been there forever, and we were just blessed never to have had a hurricane like the one we did," said Fernando Gil Enseñat, Puerto Rico's housing secretary. Hurricane Maria, he said, revealed "all of the flaws" in the island's housing policies dating back to the 1930s and 40s, when modernization policies aimed at industrialization drew people from the mountainous countryside to the cities.
"There were too many people coming down and not enough public housing," Gil said. "So what did they do? Parcels of land that were devoted to agricultural sites, people invaded them and made their communities there. Time passed by, nobody paid attention, and meanwhile mayors or representatives started building roads for them, and connecting them into the utility systems."
What many families never got was formal title, and it's one of the major issues the island's housing officials face as they try to figure out how people with no legal right to their properties will get the help they need to repair them. Gil said one plan is to use federal disaster relief money to grant deeds to some 48,000 families that the housing department has record of as living on undeeded property. That number, however, represents only a fraction of such families island-wide.
Calls to adjust the rules
But housing advocates say such fixes do not address the immediate need that many families still have to repair the roofs over their heads six months after the storm. They argue that the federal government should also recognize Puerto Rico's unique housing reality and adjust its rules accordingly.
"Recognizing that there is an issue of informality in Puerto Rico that's quite widespread, it's very important that the policies that are being implemented find ways to make this assistance available to people that need it," said Lyvia Rodriguez del Valle, who directs Proyecto ENLACE, a nonprofit that works with one of the island's largest informal communities in San Juan.
FEMA says it is being flexible. For example, it started accepting sworn affidavits from people who can't provide a property deed or otherwise prove that they own their home.
"If they're willing to sign an affidavit that states that that property is theirs, then we're going to honor that," said Michael Byrne, the top FEMA official in Puerto Rico. But that does not mean his agency can abandon controls on the housing assistance program, he said.
Applicants who've sworn they own their property but are still getting denied are likely missing something else in the application, he said. "My answer to them is keep talking to us. Come see us."
"This is taxpayer dollars and we have to be responsible stewards." Byrne said. "Not only are we following our rules, but we are also following the rules of compassion." He said his guidance to staff processing requests for assistance is not aimed at "incentivizing no's. We're incentivizing doing whatever we can to help the family."
For Cynthia Caldero, it hasn't exactly felt like that. Since Hurricane Maria leveled her tiny one room house, she says FEMA has denied her application for a home repair grant four times. She keeps the denial letters in a little black backpack.
"Assistance not approved," they read, "because you were unable to prove that you owned the home at the time of the disaster."
Though Caldero and her husband built the little house themselves, it's true they can't prove they own it. They live in a community called Villas del Sol, which its residents founded in 2010 after the government evicted them from a parcel of land off the highway that they had occupied without permission for several years.
Though their new community is on a flood plain, they at least have permission to be there. But Villas del Sol is built on a single parcel, with no individual titles.
After the hurricane crumbled their home, Caldero, her husband, and teenaged son took shelter at the neighborhood's community center, under a small portion of the roof that survived. Every so often, she'd go pick up mail at the post office where she gets it delivered, find another FEMA denial letter, and try again, she said, to justify why she couldn't prove she owned her home. So far it hasn't been enough.
"Now they're requesting a letter from the organization that manages this parcel of land," she said, "So I'm trying to get it. I've already told my husband that if they deny me a fifth time, I'm giving up. I'm not going to ask again."
It's not as urgent anymore anyway, she said. FEMA did replace her destroyed furniture and appliances, and last month a nonprofit showed up and put up four bright blue wooden walls and a roof, allowing her to finally move out of the hollowed out community center and back into her house. If FEMA were to approve her request for help with structural repairs, she said, she'd use the money to replace the thin wooden walls with concrete.
"Otherwise the next hurricane will just blow it all away again," she said.