The vast majority of the more than 10,000 homes with “tangled titles” are concentrated in North, West and Southwest Philadelphia, in neighborhoods where mostly African American and Latino people live, said city Register of Wills Tracey L. Gordon.
“We know where these homes are,” Gordon said. “We need to come up with some quick solutions. We need to get the necessary information to the constituents, so we can help them become legal owners of these properties.”
The problem is so pervasive that Gordon had the entire Pennsylvania congressional delegation recently on her weekly Zoom show: “Plan. Prepare. Protect.” It featured U.S. Reps. Dwight Evans, Mary Gay Scanlon and Brendan Boyle.
Typically a “tangled title” on a home is a situation where a person lives in a home, or has a right to own it, but their name is not on the title. The situation often happens when a family member dies without leaving a will, or the deed is never transferred to the family member who lives there.
Sometimes it can result in a relative losing the home. And tangled titles can sometimes lead to criminals stealing titles and selling the homes.
According to a study by the Pew Charitable Trusts released in August, more than $1 billion in generational wealth is tied up in so-called “tangled titles.”
Other key findings in the report include: The areas most affected tend to have high poverty levels and low housing values; and resolving a tangled title can be tedious, time-consuming and expensive.
According to Gordon, it is not a coincidence that many of the same areas have high levels of gun violence.
A tangled title prevents people from selling their homes, transferring the deed to their heirs, getting government assistance for repairs, back taxes or utility bills, and even getting assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in case of a natural disaster.
“Many people still don’t know the importance of making a will,” Gordon said. But even with a will, the deed must still be transferred at City Hall.
For his part, Evans spoke about the $63 million “Housing is Essential” plan that is part of President Joe Biden’s “Build Back Better” bill, which is still in the U.S. Senate. The bill would also put more money into Community Legal Services and Senior Legal Services to help with problems like tangled titles.
“Accessible affordable housing is key to building and maintaining livable communities,” Evans said.
Boyle said the Fair Housing Act is one of the most important tools to guard against discrimination.
“Many people have been left out economically because of housing discrimination,” he said. “Generational wealth is linked to the housing issue. For most families, the vast majority, the way they build wealth in our country is through home ownership.”
U.S. Rep. Scanlon, who is also a lawyer, said, “People don’t have access to legal help so they don’t know how to proceed.”
Even if you have a will, the title still must be transferred at the Department of Records at City Hall, Rm. 154.
According to Gordon, in the next couple of decades an estimated $60 trillion in wealth will be transferred from the baby boomer generation to millennials and Generation X.
The Tangled Title Fund, financed mainly by the Philadelphia’s Division of Housing and Community Development Fund, awards grants to low-income people seeking clear legal title to their homes. The grants help to cover administrative, legal and other costs associated with that process.
Applicants for the grants are eligible for up to $4,000. But priority is given to those with household income that does not exceed 200% of federal poverty guidelines.
In addition, the property with the tangled title must be the applicant’s primary residence, or the person applying must intend to make the property their primary residence.
The city’s Register of Wills office is charged with the protection of general wealth. The office processes marriage licenses, maintains historic records and probate estates and handles other issues.