Highlighting Heirs’ Property Ownership and Land Loss

by Teresa Jackson, SRS Public Affairs  •  July 30, 2020

A USDA Forest Service publication on heirs’ property ownership across the southern U.S. highlights a kind of land ownership prevalent among lower wealth, African Americans in the Black Belt South, central Appalachian whites, and Hispanic Americans in U.S. southwest colonia communities.

A meeting co-hosted by the Southern Research Station and the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta in July 2017 addressed heirs’ property challenges in the South.

The adoption of the Uniform Partition of Heirs’ Property Act by additional states has assisted farm and ranch heirs’ property owners in accessing assistance from the federal government. Photo by Jennie Stephens, Center for Heirs’ Property Preservation.

Proceedings from the meeting were compiled into a General Technical Report co-edited by Cassandra Johnson Gaither, research social scientist, and a diverse group of colleagues.

The report addresses heirs’ property both inside and outside of the Black Belt South—in places such as predominantly Hispanic colonia communities in the U.S. southwest, in central Appalachia, and on tribal lands. It includes presentations by grassroots and legal service organizations that work directly with families to get clear title to their property.

Heirs’ property is real property and a subset of ‘tenancy-in-common’ ownership. It is typically inherited land owned by two or more family members – who acquire the property via state laws of intestate succession, rather than by formal means. This happens when someone dies without a will, and state laws (which can vary) determine how their interests in property are distributed among surviving family members.

“Landowners with unclear titles are typically not eligible for land improvement and other federally funded programs,” says Johnson Gaither. “The lack of title also limits property owners’ ability to access credit and to sell natural resources, which results in both land and wealth loss for affected families. However, recent legislation such as the 2018 Farm Bill contains provisions to help eliminate barriers to USDA programs.”

The 2019 SRS publication is based on findings presented at a 2017 conference that brought a diverse group of stakeholders together to address heirs’ property challenges in the South. USFS photo.

The report includes chapters that focus on parcel data sources, in-depth investigations of heirs’ property owners, research on cultural aspects of heirs’ property ownership, estimations of the extent of heirs’ property in the South, and both actual and proposed ideas for legal reform to make heirs’ property ownership more viable and valuable.

Johnson Gaither’s co-editors include Ann Carpenter, director of policy and analytics for community and economic development at the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, Tracy Lloyd McCurty, executive director of Black Belt Justice, and Sara Toering, senior fellow with the Center for Community Progress.

The report has received significant recognition since it was published and was most recently featured on VICE news, a documentary series that airs on the Showtime network. The April 26 episode, Losing Ground, highlighted the vulnerabilities of African American landowners who hold heirs’ property and have suffered from involuntary land loss.

“It was wonderful to see an SRS publication highlighted on the program,” exclaims Johnson Gaither. Since the show aired, we’ve received direct feedback from landowners who shared that the publication provides a tangible source of information and reference for them as they attempt to resolve heirs’ property issues.”

It is conservatively estimated that there are more than 1.6 million acres of heirs’ property with a value of $6.6 billion in counties of the demographically defined Black Belt of the South. A first step to decreasing these numbers is a better understanding of the extent and characteristics of these properties, to help American landowners more fully realize the value of their lands.

Read the full text of the report.

For more information, email Cassandra Johnson Gaither at cassandra.johnson@usda.gov.

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