New Legislation Would Expand Access to Disaster Relief, Provide Help With Titles for Large Number of Black Landowners

Federal lawmakers introduced a legislative package on Tuesday that would expand heirs’ property owners’ access to disaster relief and provide assistance in clearing titles. Heirs’ property refers to land that has been passed down informally within families; without clear titles, owners can be ineligible for government aid and their land vulnerable to forced sales. Rep. Lizzie Fletcher, a Democrat from Texas, decided to introduce legislation after reading a ProPublica-New Yorker investigation on the legal and financial risks of holding land as heirs’ property.

More than a third of Black-owned land in the South is heirs’ property. The practice of conveying land without a will dates to Reconstruction, when many Black families did not have access to courts, and it continued through the Jim Crow era. The ProPublica-New Yorker story examined how heirs’ property owners can be locked out of federal assistance and compelled by courts to sell their land against their will.

The first of two bills, the HEIR Act of 2024, sponsored by Fletcher, along with Rep. Nikema Williams, a Democrat from Georgia, and Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, a Democrat from Missouri, proposes amending Department of Housing and Urban Development regulations to ensure that heirs’ property owners without a clear title can use alternate documentation to qualify for disaster aid. The language echoes a policy adopted by the Federal Emergency Management Agency in 2021, after a Washington Post analysis revealed a pattern of denying assistance to heirs’ property owners.

Fletcher noticed that HUD did not make similar changes. “When you look at the big picture data, it is really staggering to see the amount of lost generational wealth because of how this system operates,” she said. “The ProPublica article really brings to light what an incredible injustice this is and has been, and we need to be thinking creatively and holistically about how we can use the tools we do have to solve these problems.”

Nketiah Berko, an Equal Justice Works fellow, sponsored by the Rossotti Foundation, at the National Consumer Law Center, says that increasing heirs’ access to federal aid is critical. “When it comes to disasters, so many of the places that are most environmentally vulnerable are also areas that have histories of different types of property ownership — whether that’s uncleared title or communal homeownership,” he said. “It’s crucial that federal disaster relief programs recognize this and are tailored to the needs of these most vulnerable communities.”

A second bill, the HEIRS Act of 2024, sponsored by Williams and Rep. Byron Donalds, a Republican from Florida, along with Fletcher and Cleaver, proposes two programs to fund legal assistance for heirs’ property owners, who often cannot afford legal services to safeguard their ownership. The bill would authorize $300 million over 10 years for HUD to reward states that adopt or have adopted the Uniform Partition of Heirs Property Act; the law expands heirs’ rights when their ownership is challenged. These HUD grants could be used to help heirs’ property owners clear titles and cover associated fees. In addition, the bill would create a $10 million program for each of the next five years for HUD to fund eligible nonprofits that provide legal assistance to heirs’ property owners.

“This is really significant,” said Heather K. Way, director of the Housing Policy Clinic at the University of Texas School of Law. “More and more pro-bono legal programs have been popping up to help heirs’ property owners, but even if they have access to attorneys, there are fees and expenses associated with clearing title that can be a major impediment. This program would provide funding for those costs.”

Way also noted that HUD could make some of these proposed changes on its own by encouraging states to allow heirs’ property owners greater flexibility in qualifying for disaster aid, before federal legislation works its way through Congress.

In a statement, a HUD spokesperson wrote: “Strengthening the way HUD’s disaster recovery funds serve survivors is one of HUD’s highest legislative priorities.” The department made no comment on the specific bills.