After Florence, the Gullah Could Face New Threats

“….So far, 10 states, including South Carolina and Georgia, have passed the Uniform Partition of Heirs Property Act, a law partly crafted by Pollock’s group that slows down the process and makes these types of sales harder for developers to achieve. But that protection does not exist in North Carolina, where heir’s property is also extensive, and where Hurricane Florence is now claiming lives and causing catastrophic flooding. One real estate data company estimated the storm’s worst-case scenario could cost $170 billion in damage.

In the midst of a natural disaster, these dynamics can leave heir’s properties uniquely threatened. When an owner goes to apply for disaster relief for her damaged home, but discovers her name isn’t on the deed, she will likely struggle to meet deadlines for state and federal assistance. Approximately 20,000 heir’s property owners were denied FEMA or HUD assistance following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, because they weren’t able to show clear titles to their property, according to a 2017 study by the USDA.

It is possible for heir’s property owners to gain control over their land, but it requires legal action—and that demands financial resources that many heir’s property owners do not have. Stephens’ organization, the Center for Heir’s Property Preservation, extends pro-bono legal assistance to families who must go to court to prove ownership. It generally takes a minimum of six months, and sometimes several years, to get everything in order—perform title searches, find heirs, pay for a land survey. “Usually FEMA has a window in which you can apply for relief funds,” Stephens said. “You can’t resolve heir’s property in a matter of weeks. So what does that do for a family who can’t access those funds?”

In the coming weeks, Stephens expects an uptick in requests for help from heir’s property owners affected by Hurricane Florence. On Monday, when her team returns to the office, they’ll be blasting out notices about their services on social media.

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina shone a light on how many heir’s properties there are in the Southeast. Nearly 25,000 residents in New Orleans lacked a clear title to their home, according to a 2012 report by the Appleseed, a network of public interest legal service centers in the US and Mexico. Because it was so challenging for these largely low-income owners to qualify for FEMA and long-term recovery aid for storm repairs, many of them stopped paying taxes on their homes, and then lost them at public auction—another way that heir’s properties wind up slipping out of the hands of occupants. “It’s common to see a cascade of issues for low-income disaster victims,” said Laura Tuggle, the executive director of Southeast Louisiana Legal Services. “Everyone gets impacted by flooding, but not equally….”


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