Homeownership rates are dropping in Philly. A little-known elected office plays a big role

Philadelphia homeownership is on the decline. For the first time in 2017, more homes were occupied by renters than homeowners. 

Philadelphia rowhouses.

Philadelphia rowhouses. (WHYY file)

This story originally appeared on PlanPhilly.

Philadelphia has long been a city where the American dream of homeownership is open to rich and poor families. In fact, over a third of homeowners have annual incomes below $35,000. But today, Philadelphia homeownership is on the decline. For the first time in 2017, more homes were occupied by renters than homeowners.

There are plenty of solutions to this problem, and at the heart of some, is a little-known elected office in Philadelphia called the Register of Wills.

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Many of our communities are built around the Philadelphia family home. For decades, families have inherited their homes from their parents, and later passed them on to their children. These intergenerational family homes are even more important for low-income families because they can protect against rising property values and help families avoid involuntary displacement. And they are one of the strongest ways families of color build wealth. Nationally, the median Black household is estimated to have only one-twelfth the wealth of the median White household, and two-thirds of household wealth is tied up in a home’s equity.

So why are Philadelphia family homes on the decline and what can we do to preserve them?

Enter the Register of Wills. This office often plays a thankless and unrecognized role in ensuring that titles pass properly after the death of a homeowner. Their spouse, children, or other heirs must go to the register to probate the estate when the homeowner dies.

Without probate in most cases, the record owner of the family home will continue to be the deceased, while real or equitable ownership of the home will pass to the heirs. When the heirs die, their interest in turn goes to the heirs’ heirs.  Before too long, it is not uncommon for a home to be “owned” by a dozen or more relatives.

These “tangled titles” affect at least 18,000 Philadelphia homes. Not having one’s name on a recorded deed impairs a family’s eligibility to qualify for help with their mortgage, property tax, home repair programs, and the opportunity for the next generation to access the home’s wealth. Keeping titles in the name of a dead person also dramatically increases the opportunities for deed theft.

With so much at stake, why don’t more families probate the estates of their loved ones?

First, the high probate fees deter many families from doing so.  It costs $450 to probate an estate. This is unaffordable for many heirs who have finished raising money to provide their loved one a proper burial. Unable to afford this additional fee, some heirs are deterred from going to the register to open a loved one’s estate, a first and vital step to change the deed out of the loved one’s name.

Second, many families have disputes over which child or heir should inherit the home. The law provides only limited help in determining which of the children should become the home’s new record owner without a will.  According to the AARP, nearly two-thirds of Americans do not have a will.  Yet obtaining a will and other estate planning documents is straightforward for most people. Homes are generally the major asset for any estate, and the simple act of drafting a will can help ensure the home passes to family members after the death of the homeowner.

The Register of Wills could address both of these impediments to preserving the Philadelphia family home.  For example, it can adopt a fee waiver application to encourage low-income heirs to probate their loved ones’ estate.

Furthermore, the register can dedicate resources to send community educators to community organizations, houses of worship, public libraries, and rec centers to talk about the importance of wills, other estate planning documents, and where to obtain these documents at little or no cost.

In addition to voting for mayor, city council, sheriff, and judge candidates, we will also be picking candidates for the Register of Wills later this month.  If we value our Philadelphia family homes, we should ask candidates their position on preserving homeownership for all Philadelphians.

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