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U.S. government hears woeful testimony from 'heirs’ property' owners

by Carey L. Biron | @clbtea | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 14 August 2019 23:24 GMT

A tattered U.S. flag flies on an old tractor in a farm field outside Sutherland Springs, near the site of the shooting at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs,Texas, U.S. November 8, 2017. REUTERS/Rick Wilking

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The government is looking to address an arcane property law problem that has plagued some of the poorest U.S. communities for decades

By Carey L. Biron

WASHINGTON, Aug 14 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Property heirs on Wednesday described to government officials the lengthy court cases, tense family disputes and expensive legal research required to keep property that was rightfully theirs, amid generations of land loss.

The stories were shared at the second of two "listening sessions" on what is known as heirs' property, as the government looks to address an arcane property law problem that has plagued some of the poorest U.S. communities for decades.

"We've had land loss for generations," said Queen Quet Marquetta L. Goodwine, the elected head of the Gullah/Geechee Nation along the southeastern United States coast.

"When we start hearing about people discussing heirs' property, it's a personal matter," she testified at the U.S. Department of Agriculture headquarters in Washington.

Citizens detailed problems with property titles due to heirs' property - a type of enforced communal ownership that can arise when land or a home is passed on without a clear will.

Goodwine said she continues to farm land that has been in her family for centuries, but only because she is lucky enough to have a deed from the 1800s — a document lacked by many in her community of around 200,000 descendants of former slaves.

Owners of heirs' property, who lack clear title, are not only unable to access government assistance such as post-disaster help or farm subsidies, but are vulnerable to predatory developers who can force the sale of disputed land.

John Zippert of grassroots legal aid group Rural Coalition said he had been working on the issue for a half-century and has witnessed "horror stories" around such forced sales.

While there are no firm estimates on the scope of heirs' property, Steven Peterson, acting administrator of the Farm Service Agency, said that nearly 3.8 million acres has been lost over past decades, with a value of some $6 billion.

Of the land lost over the past century, 85 percent has belonged to African Americans, he said.

More than a dozen states have passed laws pertaining to heirs' property disputes, and the federal government passed agricultural legislation in December toward that end.

Thomas W. Mitchell, a law professor at Texas A&M University who helped draft the state-level legislation, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation those moves had been "groundbreaking."

"Taken together, the farm bill the listening sessions do represent somewhat of a high-water mark in terms of the federal government's interest in addressing heirs' property issues," he said in an email.

Wednesday's session, along with one in Mississippi in July, was aimed at helping the Department of Agriculture to implement the new measures, which include provisions to assist owners in resolving disputes.

"I'm glad that USDA is finally shining a light on the issue of heirs' property. It's an issue that has gone unaddressed for far too long," Alabama Sen. Doug Jones said in a statement to the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Jones characterized the listening sessions as "first steps towards progress that is essential for the generations of African Americans who have had their land unfairly taken away."

(Reporting by Carey L. Biron, Editing by Chris Michaud. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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