Unclear ownership impedes upkeep and sale of houses in Philly. The city is working on a solution.
More than 10,000 properties in Philadelphia have unclear ownership, or tangled titles, which leaves them vulnerable to theft and residents unable to sell or qualify for assistance to fix them.
Angelique Howard and her teenaged daughter live in a house in Hunting Park where cracks are starting to show in the brick and concrete. The roof is leaking and starting to cave. The home needs repairs soon.
“So that in a few years it won’t be unlivable,” said Howard, 44, a teaching assistant who works with students with special needs.
But when she tried to apply for a grant through the city to pay for the expensive work, she discovered she wasn’t eligible because she doesn’t own the house. The legal owner is her mother, who died in 2012.
Her mother had a will, thanks to a church seminar. But Howard and her two siblings hadn’t known they also needed to get their names on the deed of the family home.
Thanks to a new city-run program for low- and middle-income residents, the siblings don’t have to pay certain fees and received free legal help to straighten out the ownership. In a few weeks, they will see their names on the deed as legal owners of the home their parents bought 40 years ago, and Angelique will be able to apply for the repair grant.
Her sister Gabrielle Howard, 55, of Germantown, a director of a day program for people with intellectual disabilities, said that without the program, “I don’t know how long it would have taken us to figure this out.”
The complexity and costs of clearing up estates keep thousands of Philadelphia families from transferring their homes’ titles, or legal ownership, after loved ones die. This makes home repair assistance, property tax assistance, negotiations with mortgage lenders and utility providers, and sales of properties more difficult or impossible. Properties with unclear ownership are more likely to be abandoned and become a blight on neighborhoods.
And, during the city’s ongoing construction boom, tangled titles leave homes vulnerable to people looking to steal properties, or buy them for far less than they’re worth and then sell them for massive profits, especially in gentrifying areas. The same family properties that residents didn’t consider worth the hassle or potential liability of putting in their names decades ago can now sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars.
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Philadelphia’s Register of Wills office and Department of Records partnered in October to start the Probate Deferment Initiative pilot program, which connects residents with free legal help and waives the few hundred dollars’ worth of deed transfer fees. State fees, which start at a few hundred dollars, are deferred until the property is sold. Register of Wills Tracey Gordon, who took office last year, said the departments are prioritizing the long-standing title problem, which she calls a “crisis.”
The scope of Philadelphia’s problem
A 2007 study by Philadelphia VIP, a nonprofit legal services agency, found that about 14,000 properties in the city had tangled titles. The Pew Charitable Trusts is researching the problem and plans to release more recent numbers. Advocates don’t think the figure has changed much.
“We can make a dent in it, but it’s not something that’s going to be resolved in a decade, or a decade and change,” said Mike Jones, home ownership staff attorney at Philadelphia VIP, which has been at the forefront of the tangled title problem in the city.
The supply of lawyers who can volunteer their time is limited, and tangled title cases can take years to clear up as families collect needed documents from heirs. A property can go generations without any living person’s name on the deed, and the longer that’s the case, the more complicated the situation, as more and more heirs can claim pieces of the property, especially if the owner died without a will.
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The register of wills said she’d like to see the city offer stipends to entice more lawyers to help untangle titles. Gordon also created an outreach department to teach Philadelphians about the importance of estate planning through social media, at weekly webinars and, eventually, at community meetings. The goal is not only to fix tangled titles but to prevent them. The biggest problem, Gordon said, is a lack of information, because estate planning is not taught at schools, churches, banks, or other institutions, and it can be a societal taboo.
“People just don’t want to talk about when they die, even though everyone is going to die. ... And it needs to be talked about,” Gordon said. “I think it’s the responsibility of the government to educate people on the laws and legal rules about owning property and assets. So we can fix this. Otherwise, we’re going to continue to lose millions’ and millions’ and millions’ worth of assets.”
Government’s role in preserving generational wealth
Preserving families’ intergenerational wealth is one way to help close racial wealth gaps, and for most Philadelphians, their largest assets are their homes. Tangled titles disproportionately affect people of color, according to housing advocates, partly due to racial gaps in estate planning that transcend education. According to Thomas W. Mitchell, a MacArthur fellow and a professor at the Texas A&M University School of Law, roughly 75% of college-educated white people in the United States have a will, compared with 33% of college-educated Black people.
The pandemic and highly publicized killings of Black Americans last year have pushed forward a national conversation around systemic racial inequities, which makes now a good time for renewed focus on estate planning gaps, said Rachel Gallegos, an attorney at Community Legal Services, which has been helping residents untangle titles for five to 10 years.
“People’s eyes are being opened to what has been true for so long,” she said.
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Sarah Bolling Mancini, staff attorney at the National Consumer Law Center, said tangled titles are “a very common problem in cities around the country.”
Many people don’t grow up knowing about the importance of wills and the meaning of probate, the legal process of validating a will. Also, she said, many families don’t have access to a lawyer who can help them through the process.
Legal services nonprofits have been the main entities helping people untangle titles, but “local and state governments have a huge role to play,” she said. “I’m really happy to see Philadelphia taking a lead on this.”
The city’s pilot program will cater to people who can’t get help through the Tangled Title Fund, which the city has financed and Philadelphia VIP has administered since the mid-2000s to help people who meet certain criteria to pay costs of validating wills and transferring titles. The fund has about $130,000 to disburse between July 1, 2020, and June 30, 2021.
“Probate is complicated, time-consuming, document intensive, and expensive,” Gallegos of Community Legal Services said during a City Council hearing last month. “It can be close to a thousand dollars for a family to handle an estate from start to finish. And our clients simply cannot afford it.”
‘Thought everything was fine’
Shirley Turner’s parents tried to make the process easier for their daughter. They bought their West Philadelphia rowhouse in 1970, and, with a lawyer’s help, wrote into their deed that their only child should inherit the property. Turner’s father died in 1974 and her mother died 10 years later, both believing they had followed the necessary steps to pass down their largest asset.
“For all those years, particularly after Mother passed, I thought everything was fine,” said Turner, 70.
Then she applied for a city home improvement loan to weatherize her house and make other upgrades. That’s when she found out she wasn’t the legal owner, even though she has lived most of her adult life there and pays property taxes and maintenance costs.
“When you’re told your home is not your home,” she said, “that hits you.”
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Turner’s income — pension and Social Security payments — is too high for SeniorLAW Center’s free legal aid, so she’s paying a lawyer to get her name on the deed as the owner. She’s had to collect birth, death, marriage, and divorce records. A virtual hearing is scheduled for next month.
“For anybody, your greatest wealth is your home,” she said. “When you don’t have that, you don’t have anything to fall back on.”
She recently watched a Register of Wills virtual information session to learn how to spare her two children from the trouble she’s going through, and she plans to see whether she’s eligible for the pilot program to defer fees.
To apply, residents can email email@example.com.