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Black Landowners Will Benefit From New Funding to Prevent Land Loss

A year after a ProPublica story highlighted problems for landowners who passed down “heirs’ property” without wills, a reformer won a MacArthur “genius” award and a nonprofit organization has received a flood of donations.

Heirs’ property in North Carolina that was featured in a ProPublica/New Yorker story. (Wayne Lawrence, special to ProPublica)

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A property law scholar who has helped secure state protections to keep Black families from losing their land won a MacArthur “genius” award this week, a year after ProPublica drew attention to the problem and his significant efforts in a story that was published with the New Yorker. Thomas W. Mitchell, a professor at Texas A&M University School of Law, plans to use the $625,000 grant to create a law center where staff will study reforms to protect the real estate and wealth of disadvantaged property owners.

ProPublica showcased legal dilemmas that Mitchell has long worked to address: the obstacles that families face when they pass down property without a will. This land, often handed down over generations, is referred to as “heirs’ property,” a form of ownership in which descendants inherit an interest, like holding stock in a company. Their ownership is vulnerable to laws and loopholes that allow speculators and developers to acquire their property from under them, often at below-market rates. It’s estimated that more than a third of Southern Black-owned land is heirs’ property.

Mitchell was the principal drafter of the Uniform Partition of Heirs Property Act, which aims to protect families with heirs’ property from losing land in predatory or involuntary partition actions. In North Carolina, where the bill has not passed, ProPublica reported on cases in which corporations had bought shares of heirs’ property and then forced sales through the courts against the wishes of the families. The legislation Mitchell helped draft gives families the first option to buy the land if a court orders an auction, among other protections. Since 2010, the Uniform Partition of Heirs Property Act has been enacted into law in 17 states and been introduced in several more.

“I’d stumbled across this area of law that had been understudied, undertheorized and where people had given into hopelessness,” Mitchell said, referring to when he began work on this issue 20 years ago. But with the MacArthur grant, he explained, comes recognition of the impact of his work and an ability to expand on what he’s accomplished with partition law. He hopes now to look at other legal threats for underprivileged property owners, like tax sales and adverse possession. “We can take this to scale. We can do something that would have seemed crazy to even voice not that long ago.”

Jennie Stephens, the CEO of the Center for Heirs Property Preservation, believes that Mitchell’s work, and this award, will bring benefits to heirs’ property owners. “The legacy of Professor Mitchell’s research and its impact for these mostly minority, historically underserved landowners are a game-changer for generations to come,” she said. “Low-income people can obtain ‘clear’ marketable title to their land so that their land can begin to work for them and build generational wealth.”

The center, which helps protect heirs’ property, received more than $200,000 in donations in response to the ProPublica story. That funding pays lawyers to consult families on clearing title and covers clinics to help landowners write wills.

Sen. Doug Jones, a Democrat from Alabama, cited the story before the U.S. Senate passed an amendment last year to help heirs’ property owners clear titles. It included $5 million for a relending program to assist families resolving ownership issues.

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