Why Every Philadelphian Should Be Aware of ‘Tangled’ Home Titles

Panel experts say addressing this problem can unlock new sources of wealth for low-income families

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Why Every Philadelphian Should Be Aware of ‘Tangled’ Home Titles
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More than 10,000 Philadelphia households are unable to access over $1.1 billion in housing wealth because of problems associated with “tangled titles”—a situation in which the apparent owners of a property do not have their name on the deed. Those people, who typically inherited the property but failed to record a new deed, often cannot take advantage of its value or apply for city housing programs, according to an August report from The Pew Charitable Trusts. Such situations can also put these households at greater risk of deed theft and foreclosure.

To discuss the implications of these problems, Pew on Sept. 28 hosted a virtual discussion with local officials and experts who work on issues related to tangled home titles. Panelists included Philadelphia Councilmember Katherine Gilmore Richardson, Register of Wills Tracey Gordon, Department of Records Commissioner Jim Leonard, Community Legal Services managing attorney Michael Froehlich, and Kelly Gastley, managing attorney for Philadelphia VIP, which provides pro bono legal services. Estelle Richman, chair of the Center for Health Care Strategies, moderated the discussion.

The panel talked about several key takeaways from the Pew research:

  • Resolving these title issues can help narrow the racial wealth gap. Although tangled titles affect residents across the city, they are more common in neighborhoods with higher concentrations of Black residents, higher poverty rates, and lower home values. By limiting Black residents’ ability to transfer housing wealth to their heirs, these home title issues exacerbate the racial wealth gap in Philadelphia. “This is a racial justice issue,” said Froehlich of Community Legal Services. “Eighty-four percent of our tangled title clients are Black, and 15 percent are Hispanic or Latinx.” (Go to 1:13:21 in the video below.)
  • Homeowners and policymakers should proactively address title issues. Many homeowners are unaware that their property has a title problem until they face a crisis event that requires them to provide proof of homeownership. In such circumstances, it can be difficult to present that proof in time for the homeowner to receive needed assistance. Several panelists stressed the need for homeowners and policymakers to proactively address these problems before emergencies arise. A first step can be just checking the name on the property deed. “The path to untangle a title is incredibly complicated,” said Leonard, representing the city records department. “More often than not, [people] are trying to grapple with several systems—my office, the court system, and the Register of Wills office—that are incredibly hard for a layperson to access and understand.” (Go to 33:12.)
  • Estate planning is crucial to avoid tangled titles. Problems with titles most commonly occur when the legal owner of a property dies without specifying who will own that property going forward. Consequently, estate planning is essential to ensuring that properties are seamlessly transferred from one generation to the next. Multiple panelists stressed this point, including Gordon. Her Register of Wills office recently launched an educational campaign aimed at increasing awareness of strategies to ensure the process can unfold smoothly. “Make a will,’’ she said. “You don’t make a will when you get old. You make a will when you get an asset.” (Go to 58:55.)
  • More financial resources are needed to help homeowners. These cases can be expensive to resolve. With the cost of attorneys, any inheritance taxes due upon receipt of a property, and other administrative fees, even the simplest tangled titles case can cost a homeowner more than $9,000 to resolve. When applied to the 10,407 problematic titles in Philadelphia, the total cost of resolving the city’s problem approaches $100 million. What’s more, such problems become more expensive to resolve if not dealt with early. “Time is not really our friend when resolving tangled title issues,” said Gastley of Philadelphia VIP. Philadelphia offers several programs to defray the cost of resolving these issues, but more resources are needed to fully address the extent of the problem. (Go to 30:52.)
  • Tangled titles can affect anyone. Gilmore Richardson, the city council member, spoke about her personal experience. Her father, mother, and grandmother passed away within a short period of time. Because her family had not written wills, Richardson could not prove ownership over the family’s properties. She poignantly described the challenges in resolving the problems caused by tangled titles: “We were paralyzed by fear thinking that we could lose the properties that my parents left to us.” (Go to 42:39.)

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Elinor Haider is director of The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Philadelphia research and policy initiative and Adam Staveski is a senior associate with the initiative and with Pew’s home financing project.

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