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U.S. Senate Greenlights Funding to Help Prevent Families From Losing Their Land

A ProPublica-New Yorker story about black land loss was cited by the legislation’s sponsor before the near-unanimous vote.

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This week, in a near-unanimous vote, the U.S. Senate passed an amendment to help heirs’ property owners clear titles. Heirs’ property refers to land that has been handed down informally within families, often over several generations; without clear title, the land is vulnerable to legal loopholes that jeopardize ownership. The amendment included $5 million for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s relending program, which would assist families with heirs’ property in resolving ownership issues. The funding is the same amount included in a House bill, which passed in June.

The program allows eligible lending organizations, like cooperatives and credit unions, to provide loans to landowners who are seeking to clear up or consolidate ownership, helping them pay for legal assistance or obtain necessary documentation, for example.

In a statement sent to the Democratic caucus ahead of the Monday vote, Sen. Doug Jones, a Democrat from Alabama who introduced the amendment, cited a ProPublica-New Yorker story about heirs’ property and its disproportionate impact on African American families, many of whom have lost land. The article featured a pair of brothers who spent eight years in jail for refusing to leave waterfront land that had been sold to developers, though their family had held the property for a century.

“These injustices have had long-lasting consequences for the families who have struggled to prove their claims, including the untold emotional cost for those who have seen their family land taken or sold out from under them,” Jones said in a speech Monday night on the Senate floor, before the amendment passed 91-1.

Heirs’ property owners cannot qualify for some USDA loans for farming, and they often can’t receive disaster relief funding or use their land as collateral for private lending. Last year, Jones secured a provision in the 2018 Farm Bill to help heirs’ property owners qualify for some federal agriculture programs and to resolve legal issues related to ownership. It lacked the necessary funding to become fully operational.

In the wake of the ProPublica-New Yorker story, Jones and Sen. Tim Scott, a Republican from South Carolina, sent a letter urging the USDA to immediately implement these programs. The department’s Farm Service Agency held listening sessions over the summer to seek public comment on the relending program, access to USDA programs and resolving ownership.

With the passage of this amendment, funding is now included in both the House and Senate versions of the agriculture appropriations bills for 2020, which are part of a larger funding package covering multiple federal agencies. The bills will go to conference, and a final bill could be approved as early as the end of the year.

On Monday, Jones made clear that considering the challenges that African Americans have faced in purchasing land, obtaining legal services and having wills prepared, it is no coincidence that heirs’ property has affected black landowners.

“The heirs’ property challenges facing these families today,” he said, “is yet another vestige of the Jim Crow era that, with some exceptions, has lasted far too long and that we must seek to correct.”

Lizzie Presser

Lizzie Presser covers health and healthcare policy at ProPublica.

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