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Tangled titles obstruct generational wealth for thousands of city families

Baltimore rowhomes. Housing advocates say that tangled titles can lead to loss of generational wealth for thousands of city families.
Anne Ditmeyer / Prêt à Voyager/Flickr
Baltimore rowhomes. Housing advocates say that tangled titles can lead to loss of generational wealth for thousands of city families.

Denita Barnes served as her parents’ caretaker in their final years, living with them in the Northeast Baltimore home they said would pass to her after their deaths. But they died without transferring the deed to Barnes and without writing a will — leaving Barnes to navigate their estate on top of mourning them.

“I really don't want to think about when I pass away, but I know, one day God’s gonna call me home,” she said. “But I don’t want to leave that stress on my sons because it is very stressful — it was so stressful that I ended up having a mini stroke.”

Barnes is dealing with what housing experts call a tangled title: she lives in a home where her name is not on the deed. City housing advocates estimate that tangled titles keep thousands of Baltimore families, primarily in Black neighborhoods in West and East Baltimore, from qualifying for public assistance with repairs, prevent them from selling homes and make them vulnerable to tax sale foreclosure.

Many Baltimoreans dealing with tangled titles, including Barnes, who is on a fixed disability income, did not anticipate spending thousands of dollars in legal fees on navigating probate court and dealing with the Register of Wills to clear a deed transfer.

Upon a recommendation from her beautician, Barnes went to the Star of Bethlehem AME Church on a crisp afternoon this autumn to attend a free legal clinic run by the Maryland Volunteers Lawyers Service (MVLS), where attorneys helped her begin to unravel the complicated probate process and plan her own estate.

How tangled titles occur

Tangled titles usually occur when a homeowner dies without a will. They have often verbally promised the home to family who live with them or next of kin, but unless their property goes through the probate process, it’s still in the deceased’s name.

In order to transfer a property deed owned by a deceased person, every heir who has a claim on the property, such as a group of siblings, needs to be consulted. If the group is in agreement over who gets the home, the deed transfer moves forward. But if an heir is not willing to sign off that triggers a longer, more complicated probate court process.

“There can be conflict with Denita and her brothers. That can really get tricky,” said John Kern, MVLS’ Advanced Planning Project Coordinator, while sitting with Barnes and other attendees in white folding chairs on the church lawn.

“Right,” Barnes replied.

“It's a hard situation and a lot of estate planning deals with those moments,” Kern continued. “The idea is estate planning really is just a couple of legal documents that allow you to make your decisions about your stuff and a little bit about your finances and about your health care.”

People die without recording wills for many reasons, said Timothy Chance, MVLS's Tangled Title Staff Attorney. First and foremost is the misconception that estate planning is not for them.

“A common myth we see with our clients is that estate planning is only for the uber wealthy, only for those with lots of homes and multiple assets,” he said.

Phillip Westry, an MVLS lawyer who is assisting Barnes with navigating her parents’ estate, said that reluctance to talk about and prepare for death also plays a role.

“Specifically in the Black community, like my family, other folks that I have interacted with for various reasons, they don't want to talk about it,” said Phillip Westry, an MVLS lawyer who is assisting Barnes with navigating her parents’ estate.

Or families will talk about wishes, but fail to record a deed or arrange for a deed transfer, like Barnes’ parents, he said.

“All she had and all the family had to go on was sort of what they thought the parents wishes were,” he said. “ ‘Oh, mom said she wanted this to happen with the property, dad said he wanted this to happen to his sports paraphernalia.’ ”

How homes with tangled titles turn into vacant “zombie properties”

Some houses with tangled titles are left abandoned and vacant because the occupants don’t have the money necessary to maintain them.

Dan Ellis is the Executive Director of Neighborhood Housing Services of Baltimore, or NHS, which runs a program that helps low-income homeowners afford repairs through zero or low interest loans. These loans are secured against a homeowner’s property, meaning homes with tangled titles don’t qualify.

“No one can come in without due compensation and take property, including the government,” Ellis said. “There's not an easy mechanism to take property from someone who is deceased.”

An inability to qualify for a low-interest repair loan is another headache for Barnes.

“The furnace went out, so we’ve been using the space heaters,” she said. “And then two weeks ago, my hot water heater blew up. And I can't get anybody to come in and do that because the house is not in my name.”

When badly needed repairs don’t happen, properties get abandoned, Ellis said.

“Often, the house will become vacant, because it's not habitable if it doesn't have heat or has a leaky roof,” he said. “Over time, it’ll deteriorate and result in what we see in large sections of Baltimore with deteriorated properties.”

Tangled titles also contribute to vacancy through tax sale, in which Baltimore auctions off property liens to third-party investors. Those investors can charge homeowners steep interest and legal fees and eventually foreclose on their homes.

The sale categorizes properties as owner-occupied or non-owner occupied; homes that fall into these categories go to tax sale for $750 and $250, respectively. Homes with tangled titles are usually considered non-owner occupied and do not qualify for the few tax sale outreach initiatives. Mayor Brandon Scott announced in September the city would purchase the tax liens of 454 owner-occupied homes to prevent them from heading to tax sale.

Nneka N’namdi is the founder of Fight Blight Bmore and the Stop Oppressive Seizures Fund. She’s worked with residents forced out of homes that have been in their families for generations by tax sale foreclosure.

“Now the property’s vacant. The tax bill is most certainly running up: fines for trash, high grass, illegal dumpers know it’s vacant so now they're dumping there,” she said. “All these fines are creating a zombie property and that happens over and over and over and over again in Baltimore.”

The process strips Black families of shelter and generational wealth, leading to ripple effects throughout their communities, she said.

“All of the elements that create a quality life — healthy neighborhoods, productive schools, employment opportunities — all of those things are damaged by vacancy,” N’namdi said. “We have families displaced and social bonds broken.”

Estate planning outreach

At the clinic, Westry of the MVLS helped Barnes prepare the documents needed for a deed transfer and create an estate plan of her own, including a will and an advanced medical directive. The MVLS holds this clinic several times a year at churches, hoping that their legal services and the importance of estate planning will spread by word of mouth.

Barnes lives in the house with her two sons. She’s relieved to plan her estate, knowing her assets will go to them without heartache.

“It's a memory of my parents. My parents worked for the city. And it was hard. You know, it's not like the city pays that much,” she said. “For them to buy a home, have it paid off before they passed away and leave something for their children?”

Her voice trailed off. “I want to keep it in the family because my parents worked hard,” she said.

Westry, a longtime housing attorney, recalled the many times he’s helped siblings whose parents passed without a will navigate tax sale foreclosure.

“They're fighting, squabbling over who should be paying what,” he said. “And I have to have a moment with them and say, ‘Do you think your parents want this asset to go away because of you all fighting?’ ”

Estate planning outreach is a large part of the battle, Ellis of NHS said. But he’s hopeful that better programs for those dealing with tangled titles are on the horizon. He’s co-chairing Baltimore’s new Tax Sale Work Group, which will brainstorm ways to reach affected families.

They have their work cut out for them. Since every tangled title tells a different story, there can’t be a one-size-fits-all legislative fix, he said.

“Having a universal, stroke of the wand solution that's implemented through some form of legislation becomes extremely challenging and difficult because every family is a different situation,” he said. “We saw one family where there were 39 next of kin who had to be notified - all of them - that they had a claim on the property.”

Nnamdi, who is also on the tax sale workgroup, said the work should center on preventing titles from becoming tangled in the first place.

“So that means payment plans, that means the property tax credits. That means a program to help people who are heirs get through the probate process,” she said. “It means going and identifying what has happened to those folks and what are their housing outcomes and offering them repair.”

Westry thinks her deed transfer will be resolved within a matter of months. Barnes is grateful for the help and wishes her parents had been proactive about estate planning.

But she also wishes the city and state had better resources to help her understand and navigate her complicated situation.

“Going down to the Register of Wills, they are greedy. They make you pay for everything,” she said. “I know it’s not the state’s fault, it’s not the city’s fault, but the hand is always out for money instead of, ‘OK, let us help you.’ ”

Emily Sullivan is a city hall reporter at WYPR, where she covers all things Baltimore politics. She joined WYPR after reporting for NPR’s national airwaves. There, she was a reporter for NPR’s news desk, business desk and presidential conflicts of interest team. Sullivan won a national Edward R. Murrow Award for an investigation into a Trump golf course's finances alongside members of the Embedded team. She has also won awards from the Chesapeake Associated Press Broadcasters Association for her use of sound and feature stories. She has provided news analysis on 1A, The Takeaway, Here & Now and All Things Considered.