Oct 22, 2021 - News

Philadelphia's $1 billion problem: Tangled titles

Three rows of identical houses on a blue background, with one of the houses replaced with a lock.

Illustration: Maura Losch/Axios

There are more than 10,000 tangled titles — or property titles that bear the name of someone other than the current homeowner — in Philadelphia.

  • Most often, a title is tangled because it's still under the name of a deceased person.

Why it matters: These homes can't negotiate with banks, get access to city-funded grants for home repairs or sell — all of which leads to more blight, according to research from The Pew Charitable Trusts.

  • Register Of Wills Tracey Gordon called it a threat to generational wealth.

Driving the news: Councilmember Katherine Gilmore Richardson introduced a bill last month mandating that funeral homes provide families of the deceased information about transferring their loved ones' home titles.

  • A council hearing on the legislation is slated for Monday.

Between the lines: Tangled titles in Philadelphia affect more than $1.1 billion worth of collective real estate. Areas with the most tangled titles — predominantly Black neighborhoods — have low housing values and high poverty rates.

  • The neighborhoods with a higher concentration of tangled titles also correlate with higher rates of gun violence, particularly in North and West Philadelphia.
  • Gordon said reducing tangled titles will lead to less gun violence, citing a University of Pennsylvania study that found repair program fixes for just one house on a street reduced crime by almost 22%.
Side-by-side maps depict the overlap of total shooting victims by ZIP code and locations of the city's tangled titles. Photo courtesy of The Pew Charitable Trusts and The Philadelphia Controller's Office

What's available: Lawyers' fees account for half the median cost of untangling a title.

  • The Register of Wills' Probate Deferment Initiative waives or defers certain fees to straighten out a tangled title. It also connects low-income and moderate-income Philadelphians with free legal help.
  • Seven families have resolved tangled titles over the past five months through the initiative.

Meanwhile, about a third of those suffering from a tangled title are also tax delinquent.

  • The city is allowing people who aren't record owners to set up payment plans for past due taxes.

Are you or someone you know in need of help? To apply to the Probate Deferment Initiative, email [email protected].


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