Clouded Title

Challenge

Heirs’ property or clouded title can prevent some homeowners from accessing financing to repair, replace, or build housing.

More than a third of Black-owned land in the South is passed down informally, rather than through deeds and wills. This is a custom that dates to the Jim Crow era, when Black landowners were excluded from the Southern legal system. Black homeowners still often believe this protects their land, but the Department of Agriculture has found that heirs’ property is the leading cause of Black involuntary land loss. Without formal deeds, families are cut off from federal loans and grants, including from FEMA, which requires that disaster survivors prove they own their property before they can get help rebuilding.

Nationally, FEMA denies requests for help from about 2 percent of applicants for disaster aid because of title issues. In majority-Black counties, the rate is twice as high, in large part because Black people are twice as likely to pass down property informally. In parts of the Deep South, FEMA has rejected up to a quarter of applicants because they can’t document ownership, and in In Hale County, FEMA has denied 35 percent of disaster aid applicants for this reason since March 2021.

Opportunity & Response

With input from Auburn University rural sociologists and congressional leadership provided by Alabama representatives, the 2018 Farm Bill expanded provisions for heirs to qualify for a Farm Service Agency (FSA) farm number which unlocks key programs within USDA. This action also led to 11 rural states (including Alabama) to further adopt the Uniform Partition of Heirs Property Act, which acknowledges other forms of documentation when heirs lack a clear title and provides due process protections to landowners facing a potential forced partition. 

Due to recent policy reversals, families living on heirs’ property will now be allowed to self-certify that they own their homes. FEMA will also accept letters from local officials and bills for home repairs as proof of ownership. The new guidelines will apply retroactively to Aug. 23, to cover damages from Ida and flooding in Tennessee. Additionally, there is legislation moving through Congress that will require FEMA to reopen cases going back several years.

Implementation