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Federal Government Wants to Hear From Heirs’ Property Owners

Ten days after a story about black families losing their land, the USDA scheduled listening sessions to hear from people who have had trouble qualifying for federal programs because their land was passed down without a will.

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Update, July 26, 2019: This story has been updated with comment from the USDA.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency this week announced two listening sessions on heirs’ property as it seeks public input on a relending program to clear titles and how to address obstacles to gaining access to certain FSA programs.

The events were announced 10 days after ProPublica and The New Yorker published a story about widespread land loss on account of heirs’ property — a form of ownership in which land is passed down without a will, often over generations, and descendants inherit an interest, like holding stock in a company. Without clear titles, these landowners are exposed to a number of vulnerabilities. Not only do they struggle to use their land as collateral for private financing and federal loans, but they also have not historically been eligible for a farm number through the FSA in order to access certain USDA programs.

The Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 included a relending program to help clear titles for heirs’ property owners and listed alternative routes for heirs’ property owners to qualify for certain USDA programs for farmers. The ProPublica-New Yorker story noted that the relending program outlined in the law had not been funded.

The public meetings will be held in Jackson, Mississippi, on July 31 and in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 14. The FSA has asked for the public to share advice on how the agency “can streamline and improve program delivery, as well as enhance outreach.” Its specific questions for heirs’ property owners and other stakeholders, as well as the time and location of the meetings, are detailed in this notice.

This announcement came on the heels of a letter, written three days after the story’s publication, by U.S. Sens. Doug Jones, of Alabama, and Tim Scott, of South Carolina. Their letter urges the USDA to immediately implement the heirs’ property provisions that were secured in the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018.

They wrote: “The inability to participate in USDA programs has not only contributed to a startlingly negative trend in African-American land ownership but has also hindered African-American farmers and ranchers from experiencing economic equality.”

A USDA spokesperson said that although the events were announced in the Federal Register this week, news of listening sessions was posted on its website a month ago. “The heirs' property provisions in the Farm Bill meet a longstanding call from stakeholders to address issues that many African American and other producers experience around holding clear title to land and participating fully in USDA programs,” the spokesperson said. “These listening sessions represent a process for seeking comments that will inform FSA’s policy making process.”

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Lizzie Presser

Lizzie Presser covers health, inequality and how policy is experienced for ProPublica.

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