Philadelphia Register of Wills Tracey Gordon. There are 10,000 tangled titles in Philadelphia County, Gordon said, citing research by the Pew Charitable Trusts (Philadelphia Tribune photo)
PHILADELPHIA — Bobby Blanton took care of his home for 40 years before ever owning a square inch.
After moving to Philadelphia, Blanton stayed in the home of a family friend named Annie Clark.
“When I moved from down South to the North … I got a room from her and I started taking care of her and the property,” Blanton told the Philadelphia Tribune.
Once Clark died, Blanton continued to live in the home for another 40 years — paying all of the bills and repairing any of the damages himself.
One day, Blanton ran into trouble when attempting to transfer the house’s water bill into his name.
“I couldn’t get the water bill into my name until I had the deed,” he said. “Until then, they wouldn’t do it.”
The process of obtaining the deed took Blanton several months to finish. However, with the help of Philly VIP, a legal service agency for low-income Philadelphians, and his attorney Lindsay Schoonmaker, Blanton was able to acquire the deed.
Once Blanton obtained the deed, he was also able to create a will for his assets and register for the homestead act, a tax exemption that saves homeowners money on real estate taxes.
“Now that I got the homestead act, the deed, and the will done I am satisfied,” he said.
Blanton’s story isn’t uncommon, and while his story ends successfully, thousands of other Philadelphians continue to suffer from issues connected to tangled titles.
“A lot of clients come to us because they are having a specific issue, Schoonmaker said. “They may need a title to qualify for a program or to get on a tax plan, so Mr. Blanton was really lucky that he was doing it proactively … but a lot of people come with more urgent situations.”
A tangled title is a situation where someone who has the right to own the home they live in can’t because their name is not on the home’s deed. This situation often occurs when the homeowner dies without transferring the deed to a relative’s or someone else’s name.
According to the Philadelphia Legal Assistance website, tangled titles “can make solving problems with your house, especially urgent ones, difficult or impossible,” and can result in families eventually losing their homes all together.
City Council members alongside other officials and nonprofit partners recently announced that they will be investing $7.6 million into assisting residents with resolving tangled title issues, a problem that directly impacts about 10,000 Philadelphia residents.
According to officials, the funds will be used to expand the services of four Philadelphia legal assistance agencies — Philly VIP, Community Legal Services (CLS), Philadelphia Legal Assistance (PLA) and the Senior Law Center — so that more residents can get affordable legal assistance during the lengthy titling process.
“There are currently thousands and thousands of homes and properties in Philadelphia where the titles are tangled, and property owners lack a clean title to the home,” said Council President Darrell L. Clarke in a news release. “This infusion of city money — through Council’s Neighborhood Preservation Initiative — can help thousands of property owners clean up their title and their claims to owning the home.”
This investment is a part of the “Neighborhood Preservation initiative,” a $400 million program created by the City Council last year that aims to generate affordable housing production, home repairs, small business revitalization and neighborhood preservation.
Councilmember Katherine Gilmore-Richardson shared her personal experience with tangled titles during the news conference. She said that after both of her parents and grandmother died, her and her sister were left with two family homes they couldn’t afford to take care of.
“I helped so many people over the years … with this very issue, but suddenly here I am faced with this issue and I was paralyzed with fear,” Gilmore-Richardson said. “(I) did not know what to do next and how we were going to come up with the capital necessary to keep these homes in our family.
“Because of this significant legislative and funding initiative of the Neighborhood Preservation Initiative, we are now able to make the largest, most significant investment in helping families across the entire city of Philadelphia eliminate tangled titles, gain ownership of their homes, and move on to have more generational wealth for them and their loved ones and their legacy.”
Philadelphia’s Register of Wills Tracey L. Gordon said that she believes this investment is a good start, “but we know it is going to take a lot more … so we are going to continue to advocate.”
Gordon and her office have done extensive work to help Philadelphia residents resolve tangled titles.
The Register of Wills office has created programs like the Probate Deferment Initiative to assist lower income families in resolving tangled titles. The office has also created a weekly Zoom show and has several public service announcements to help educate residents about clearing up tangled titles.
“We have to educate people,” Gordon said. “Make it a conversation in your house about how to protect your generational wealth.”
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