Philly Leaders Vow Action on ‘Tangled' Home Titles Tied to Crime, Poverty

“Without clear ownership, residents are unable to tap into the home’s value—in many cases, a family’s primary source of accumulated wealth,”

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More than 10,000 homes in Philadelphia may not technically belong to people who think they own them, and now city leaders are vowing action on the “tangled title pandemic,” which is tied to both crime and poverty.

Philadelphia Register of Wills Tracey Gordon on Friday highlighted a city program that waives some fees incurred when fixing a property title, but she and other leaders said more action needs to be taken to address the problem.

A tangled title arises when the deed to a home does not bear the name of the apparent owner, usually a problem that arises when the home is inherited from a family member who has died. This leaves people unable to tap into the full benefits of homeownership and makes them vulnerable to losing their home through things like foreclosure and deed theft, the Pew Charitable Trusts found in a recent study.

“Without clear ownership, residents are unable to tap into the home’s value—in many cases, a family’s primary source of accumulated wealth,” according to the study, which found that tangled titles in the city are affecting real estate worth more than $1.1 billion.

Tangled titles can happen through various means, but Pew focused primarily on two in Philadelphia. The first type of tangled title Pew looked at happens when someone who owns a property dies without naming a living person to whom the title should be transferred. The second type happens when someone dies but the title does not automatically transfer to the person whom they named as their heir.

Because of “significant limitations” in its methodology, the Pew study concluded that the estimated 10,407 tangled titles it counted in Philadelphia are “undoubtedly an undercount.” Gordon said the issue is so widespread that the city is undergoing a “tangled title pandemic.”

Despite not owning the property, people with tangled titles still bear the same responsibilities as homeowners, such as paying real estate taxes and maintaining the home. However, because the deed is not under their name, people with tangled titles often cannot access programs and grants for homeowners, leaving their homes susceptible to blight and in turn, Pew concluded, increased crime.

“Then we see the violence, that’s when the violence comes, and the drugs and the blight and the gentrification. We all know this all-too-common story,” Gordon said.

In Philadelphia, Pew’s research found that tangled titles are located predominantly in North, Upper North, Southwest, and West Philadelphia. The neighborhoods with the most tangled titles also tend to be predominantly Black and have high poverty rates and low property values, Pew concluded.

The problem is exacerbated by the expensive cost of untangling a title, which Pew said could be about $9,200 for a home with a median assessed value of $88,800.

Councilwoman-at-Large Katherine Gilmore Richardson, who shared her own story of having to untangled family titles after her father and grandmother died without leaving a will, said she will introduce legislation and called for more “revenue-based solutions” to the tangled title problem.

“If major stability is our goal, then addressing our city’s tangled title problem is a major step in the right direction,” said councilwoman Jamie Gauthier, who represents Philadelphia’s 3rd District, which has one of the highest concentrations of tangled titles in the city.

In the meantime, Gordon said people looking to resolve a tangled title should call her office at 215-686-6250 to be directed to further resources.

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