Philadelphians are at risk of losing more than $1.1 billion in household wealth because ownership of their homes is legally unclear, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts. And that’s a conservative estimate.
More than 10,400 properties in Philadelphia have unclear ownership, which mostly occurs when a homeowner dies and the deed is not transferred to a new owner. These tangled titles keep people from qualifying for government help with home repairs, keep them from being able to sell homes, and leave them vulnerable to deed-stealing schemes. People also can’t take out home improvement loans or use home equity to start a business. Sometimes property taxes go unpaid and homes wind up at sheriff’s sales. Families can lose the wealth they’ve spent generations building.
Properties with unclear ownership are more likely to be abandoned and contribute to blight and decreased home value in neighborhoods.
Areas with higher percentages of properties with tangled titles are more likely to have large populations of people earning low incomes and Black residents, a consequence of both discriminatory policies that limit Black wealth building and low levels of estate planning among Black households. Parts of North, Upper North, West, and Southwest Philadelphia have more than half of the city’s tangled titles, despite containing about a third of residential properties, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts’ analysis published Wednesday.
“Households that are in need of additional wealth are unable to tap it,” said Octavia Howell, a manager of the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Philadelphia research and policy initiative.
The more than 10,400 tangled titles the report found represent about 2% of the city’s residential properties. The total assessed value of those properties tops $1.1 billion. Researchers and city officials agree that the findings in the report, initiated to understand the scope of the problem in Philadelphia, are undercounts. The analysis checked property records against death records to arrive at the estimate.
Tracey Gordon, the city’s register of wills, said she plans to use the findings to target her office’s estate planning education efforts to specific neighborhoods and to advocate for more funding and legislation from City Council and the state to chip away at the tangled title problem.
The cost and complexity of resolving tangled titles as well as a lack of knowledge of the issue have kept Philadelphians from acting. In decades past, some also didn’t think their property was worth the effort. But home values across Philadelphia have been on the rise.
“Many people don’t know they are in a tangled title. ... They think they own the property,” Gordon said. “People are sitting in properties that have the potential of being lost, whether it’s sheriff sales, disrepair, abandonment.”
Resolving a tangled title can be time-consuming and usually requires the help of a lawyer. With legal counsel, taxes, and fees, the process can cost $9,200 for a home assessed at the median value of $88,800, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts. That’s for a simple case.
The longer the problem persists, the more difficult it can be to resolve, as heirs multiply and they claim pieces of the property, especially if the owner died without a will.
The city’s Register of Wills office has been trying to raise awareness about what tangled titles are and how to avoid them in an effort to keep the problem from growing. Preventing tangled titles is easier than resolving them.
Last year, the office partnered with the city’s Department of Records to create a program that waives or defers certain fees to straighten out a tangled title and connects low- and moderate-income Philadelphians with free legal help from volunteer lawyers. Lawyers’ fees account for half the median cost of untangling a title.
To apply to the city’s Probate Deferment Initiative pilot program, residents can email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sharon Wilson, solicitor in the Register of Wills office, said the Pew Charitable Trusts report confirms what the office already knew, but it is “the kind of documentation we need to move forth even more aggressive policies.”
Since the Register of Wills’ program ramped up about six months ago, a handful of families have completed it and a handful more are in the pipeline. The program can help those who don’t qualify for assistance through the city-funded Tangled Title Fund, which has more than $210,000 this fiscal year to help low-income Philadelphians pay costs of validating wills and transferring titles. Gordon said more Philadelphians are calling her office for help as they hear about the program.
Dana Goldberg, the legal director at the Philadelphia-based SeniorLAW Center, said that among the agency’s clients — Pennsylvanians aged 60 and over — tangled titles are a growing problem. Many older adults in Philadelphia own homes despite living in poverty, she said, because the property has passed down through generations.
“Usually we’re contacted because of some kind of precipitating crisis that has occurred,” she said. “There’s a hole in the roof and it’s raining or in the winter it’s snowing into the house, and they need their roof repaired, and they need to apply for these [assistance] programs. And they’ve been denied because they can’t prove they’re the record holder.”
In an interview with the Pew Charitable Trusts, David Perri, former commissioner of the city’s Department of Licenses and Inspections, said lack of maintenance caused almost all of the building collapses that were not construction-related over the last several years.
Before the new report by the Pew Charitable Trusts, a 2007 analysis by the nonprofit legal services agency Philadelphia VIP found that about 14,000 properties had tangled titles. That analysis used different methods than Wednesday’s report, so the numbers can’t be compared.
Gordon, the city’s register of wills, said that even though the latest report undercounted tangled titles in Philadelphia, it makes clear the issue is a deep one.
“This,” she said, “is a crisis.”
The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.