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City Must Save Neighborhoods From the Tangled-Title Epidemic

Authors: Kelly J. Gastley and Joseph A. Sullivan

5/30/2017
City Must Save Neighborhoods From the Tangled-Title Epidemic

This article was published in the May 30, 2017 issue of The Philadelphia Inquirer. © Copyright 2017 Philadelphia Media Network (Digital), LLC. It is reprinted here with permission.

Inga Saffron's recent Inquirer article drew a powerful connection between gentrification and the issue of tangled titles. With home values in certain neighborhoods rising, and properties becoming more attractive to outside buyers, it is crucial that longtime residents be able to protect their families' most precious assets - their homes.

The article delved into how "tangled title" issues arise - that is, where the person living in the property and claiming an ownership interest is not actually listed on the deed - and why they're so consequential. Fortunately, there is already a solution in place that could, with enough resources, transform the face of our neighborhoods.

Homes with tangled titles are a rampant problem in Philadelphia. Philadelphia VIP, a nonprofit legal services agency dedicated to matching low-income clients with volunteer attorneys, partnered with the Cartographic Modeling Lab (CML) of the University of Pennsylvania in 2007 to determine how many properties in the city fall into this category.

CML's analysis discovered more than 14,000 properties where the owner listed on the deed was deceased - a striking number that doesn't even capture other title problems, like rent-to-own agreements. Some of these properties may be vacant, but many have families living in them, often for generations.

The legal services and pro bono community in Philadelphia have been working tirelessly to solve tangled-title issues for more than 15 years. Philadelphia VIP refers more than a hundred clients with title issues every year to volunteer attorneys who wade through old family trees and stories of properties passing down through generations. (Many more clients seek legal services but are turned away due to limited resources.)

VIP staff pours time into training and supporting these volunteers, and law firms like Pepper Hamilton and Reed Smith have been running pro bono practice groups for more than 10 years specifically to address the unique challenges presented by these situations. The extraordinary commitment of volunteer attorneys has ensured that clients get title to the homes they have invested so much energy and money into over the years. With each client who gets title to her home, the benefits to the surrounding neighborhood multiply.

But the road to solving a tangled title is often not straightforward, and it certainly isn't free. Attorneys spend an average of 35 hours on each case, and the average client needs to pay $1,200 in administrative costs (not attorneys' fees). Volunteer attorneys recruited by VIP and SeniorLAW Center are crucial to meeting this need, representing most of the low-income Philadelphians who get free legal assistance on their title cases. Staff attorneys at SeniorLAW Center, Community Legal Services, and Philadelphia Legal Assistance also help low-income residents resolve title issues without charge.

But there is an imminent threat to this legal assistance - the White House has proposed slashing the Community Development Block Grant funding that comes from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which funds tangled-title work. If this happens, VIP's capacity to train and support the volunteer attorneys who handle most of these cases will plummet.

In addition, the administrative costs to clients pose a serious obstacle - particularly the probate filing fee required to open a deceased person's estate (usually around $450) and the city and state transfer taxes required to record a deed that changes the owner's name (4.1 percent of the property value - on a $50,000 property, that would be $2,050). Most tangled-title issues cannot be resolved without these fees being paid.

Since the early 2000s, the city's Division of Housing and Community Development has provided money for a Tangled Title Fund, assisting more than 60 low-income Philadelphians each year in paying for these costs. But the money for this fund decreased in this past year's budget, making it increasingly possible that more Philadelphians will face losing their homes.

If we as a city are truly committed to keeping people in their homes and communities intact, we need to commit significant resources to helping Philadelphians get title to their homes. Title is the key that opens so many doors - access to payment plans, to home repair grants, and to equity. It is, really, a key to stabilizing our neighborhoods and, one day, raising many of our families out of poverty.

The material in this publication was created as of the date set forth above and is based on laws, court decisions, administrative rulings and congressional materials that existed at that time, and should not be construed as legal advice or legal opinions on specific facts. The information in this publication is not intended to create, and the transmission and receipt of it does not constitute, a lawyer-client relationship.