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Where Property Ownership Meets Property Casualty: Expanding Legal Access in the Community

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While homeowners and flood insurance policies can be great tools for property owners in the wake of a loss, an entire population is left out of this process. While renters insurance can help cushion the blow of a loss for non-homeowners, underprivileged populations may lack the financial or cultural capital to protect their belongings, particularly when this protection is contingent upon another bill. As a result, understanding the intersection between socioeconomic status, homeownership, and access to the legal system is crucial in addressing this issue. The social travesties that we at Insurance Claim HQ saw in the wake of Hurricane Katrina were needless, and thus, can be prevented from causing further systematic suffering in the future.

While subsisting in a household under the poverty line makes life more complicated in a variety of nuanced ways, the racial wealth gap suggests that low-income African Americans have the most difficult time following a property loss. While the racial wealth gap has a variety of influences ranging from the GI Bill to the predatory finance industry, its roots can be traced to the conditions immediately after the Civil War. African Americans gained access to owning land at an amazing rate, yet, due to lingering racist sentiment that had seeped into various industries, this land became difficult to retain.

In Jim Crow America, African Americans were often intimidated out of living in their own homes after being subjected to racist acts. However, the story hardly ends there; racism, of course, takes many more forms than just hate crimes. The loss of homeownership oftentimes meant the loss of political say, leading to disillusionment with the political, and ultimately, legal processes. Some white lawyers outright refused to help African Americans because of their skin color, while lawyers in general were hard to be trusted when they were tools of an exclusionary political system. These patterns had detrimental effects on the creation of wills on behalf of black families. Even if African American homeowners had managed to keep their families safely on their property, in the absence of succession preparation, the children would only end up with a fraction of property ownership when their parents passed away.

Referred to as heirs’ property, ownership limited to mere portions of a home often result in partition sale or tax default, leaving African Americans to operate as if the Civil War had just ended yesterday. Because decades upon decades have passed since the days of slavery, victim-blaming narratives regarding the lack of property ownership run the risk of being internalized, which only reinforces disillusionment. However, the problem is realized when it comes to property casualty events.

After Katrina, underprivileged populations couldn’t even get FEMA money, nonetheless insurance money, because of either ambiguous or non-homeownership status. Perhaps most tragically, the most-flood-prone areas of New Orleans are residential communities of lower-income African Americans. Because of continued lack of legal and political voice, these communities were not treated as priorities, resulting in some devastated neighborhoods still sitting idle today. In order to counteract historical trends, it is imperative to make homeownership the standard rather than the gold standard through public intervention, as well as to expand access to legal services through pro bono work. Further, the narrative of who it is who utilizes the services of lawyers needs to be expanded. Whether it be property casualty, civil rights, or will and succession law, the legal process is, indeed, for everybody.

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