Nearly half of Puerto Rico's homes are were built as "informal homes"– homes, that for generations, have been built without a permit or title, the Miami Herald reported last month. As a result, many Puerto Ricans who now can't prove they own their homes with a title or other formal documents, are being denied FEMA aid for damages by Hurricane Maria.

Although the practice is technically illegal, the informal home construction has been a common widespread practice – particularly in rural towns outside of San Juan – for generations. A recent NPR report examining the phenomenon has put the effects of this longtime practice, and Hurricane Maria relief, in perspective. 

NPR interviewed José López, a resident of Puerto Rico who still lives in the home he was raised in. López explained that his grandfather made an agreement with a farm owner, who was his boss at the time, to have a little corner of the farm's estate to build a home for his daughter (López's mother). The house has been in the family for 39 years.

When Hurricane Maria hit, the roof of their home tore off, NPR reported. But after Lopez submitted an application for repair, he was reportedly instructed that he had to further prove he owned the home since he had no title. 

"They say I have to justify why I don't have title to the house," he told NPR. "But back then, when people made agreements, all that mattered was their word and a handshake."

López's case is certainly not an isolated one. According to NPR, a majority of applications of the more than 1 million applications to FEMA had been deemed ineligible for the agency's Individual and Households Program. In an e-mail statement to NPR, FEMA reportedly confirmed that the main factor for denying grants had to do with applicants' inability to prove they owned the homes. 

In a press release issued by FEMA earlier this month, the agency stated that it would accept alternatives for verification for proof of home ownership.

"FEMA is exhausting all options in its home ownership verification process to help Puerto Rico disaster survivors for whom proof of ownership is slowing their recovery," the release stated. "By law, FEMA must require proof of ownership and occupancy from disaster survivors who apply for federal assistance to help with repairs to their damaged homes."

The agency suggested in the press release that residents who can't prove home ownership by providing certain formal paperwork, could seek legal assistance through the free Disaster Legal Services hotline. Residents also have the option to provide a signed self-declaration, the release stated. 

But Sarah Delgado, an attorney volunteering with a legal aid group, told NPR that many people have become "discouraged" after being denied multiple times.

"I've seen many people being denied three or four times, and just deciding it's not worth the stress," she said. "They're getting discouraged, and they're just giving up."