Thousands of flooded families across the Baton Rouge area are getting hung up on legal technicalities before they can even submit an application to receive their federal assistance.
Wednesday, attorneys and philanthropists announced a new pro bono program to help residents clear up their property records so people who live in a flooded house — but aren't listed as the owner — can receive money for rebuilding.
In the immediate aftermath of the flood, nearly 7,000 families could not qualify for FEMA assistance because they didn't have clear title on their home, said Laura Tuggle, executive director of Southeast Louisiana Legal Services. There are still about 2,600 lower-income families who need to prove they own their houses.
Tuggle recounted a client's story: The woman lived in a home that had belonged to her grandmother, who died 20 years ago. The resident's mother has also since died, and the woman lives in the family home but isn't listed as the legal owner because a formal succession document was never written.
The living arrangement, however, had never been a problem. That is, until the house flooded and the woman could not receive help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Tuggle said.
Wednesday, officials announced the W.K. Kellogg Foundation award of a $300,000 grant to pay for legal fees and court costs associated with clearing titles for families who earn less than 250 percent of the poverty line. That works out to about $60,000 per year for a family of four.
The Baton Rouge Area Foundation will provide another $250,000 with the ultimate goal of clearing up all the lapsed title information in the area, though flooded properties will receive priority. With agencies like FEMA referring eligible residents, they hope to clear 500 properties in the first year.
The cost to sort out a property title can be a few hundred dollars, but it can balloon if there are many heirs, or if lawyers have to track them down across state lines to get them to sign off, speakers said at a press conference.
To help streamline the process, BRAF is collaborating with academics and attorneys to create a smartphone app, Flood-proof, where users can send their information to lawyers, speeding up the process and bypassing trips to their offices. Even the name of a deceased former property owner can help, said Judy Perry Martinez of the American Bar Association Center for Innovation.
The app is still in development but is scheduled to roll out by the end of the year. In the future, it may be able to help people with other legal matters such as consumer debt and issues between landlords and tenants, Martinez said.
Lawyers from the local bar foundation will provide some of the legal legwork for the post-flood title issues. Next semester, 20 or 30 law students at LSU will also pitch in. Law professor Robert Lancaster said many students are unfamiliar with the matter, and he hopes they'll remember what they learn down the road when they're attorneys, judges and legislators.
BRAF chairman Dennis Blunt said the work of clearing titles may not be a matter of getting people back into their homes more quickly, but ensuring that they are able to come back at all.
As Tuggle remarked, Baton Rouge has had boots on the ground to gut houses and haul debris. Now it's time to put suits on the ground to clear up the legal mess.
Residents may contact a lawyer for information at the title program by visiting apply.lanonprofitjustice.org or by calling 1-844-244-7871.