Philly has over 10,000 tangled titles. Here’s what residents need to know about them

Rowhouses line North 29th Street in Philadelphia

Rowhouses on North 29th Street in Philadelphia. (Jonathan Wilson/WHYY)

Many issues impact housing affordability in Philadelphia, but there is one that impacts more than 10,000 households in mostly low-income neighborhoods and is a huge barrier to equity and generational wealth.

Unfortunately, many Philadelphians are at risk, and they don’t know it. This is the issue of tangled titles, or when the name on a home’s deed does not match its current owner.

According to a recent study by Pew Charitable Trusts, Philadelphia has at least 10,407 tangled titles, affecting 2% of the city’s more than 500,000 residential properties. The prevelance of tangled titles is highest in parts of North, West, and Southwest Philadelphia — areas that account for only about one-third of all residential properties, but more than half of the city’s tangled titles. The neighborhoods most affected tend to be those with relatively low housing values, low incomes, and high poverty rates.

They are also predominantly Black. The census tracts with the highest percentages of tangled titles are 87% Black, making this a significant racial equity issue.

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Having a tangled title is a huge headache. Not only can it cost thousands of dollars and take many years to resolve, but it also means a property is more at risk of being stolen. Homes with tangled titles cannot be insured and do not qualify for maintenance grants. Most importantly, the owner cannot tap into the home’s equity.

After the passing of her parents and grandmother, City Councilmember Katherine Gilmore Richardson struggled to settle their estates, leading to a tangled title on her parents’ home where her sister lives with her family. This experience inspired her to advocate for additional resources to address tangled titles, securing an additional $7.6 million over four years as part of the Neighborhood Preservation Initiative, and sponsor legislation to educate Philadelphians about probating estates. She was supported by AARP Pennsylvania, who endorsed and testified in support of her Tangled Title Disclosure Bill before Philadelphia City Council in fall 2021.

The new law will help people avoid the headache and expense of resolving a tangled title. It requires funeral service providers to supply their clients with a city-generated guide to avoiding a tangled title, including information on how to transfer a property from a deceased owner to an heir through a legal process called probate. The guide will also provide information about legal assistance and where folks can go for help. The Philadelphia Department of Records will lead the creation of the information guide with support from the register of wills. The law will go into effect later this year.

There is a lot to know and understand about tangled titles — both if you have one and how they impact our city overall.

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That is why, together with the Philadelphia Department of Records and Philadelphia VIP, we are going to answer your questions about tangled titles, including what you need to do if you think you have one and how the city is working to address the crisis.

Expanding generational wealth through property ownership is crucial to achieving racial and economic equity, and we want to make sure all Philadelphians have these opportunities. Join us via Zoom on March 16 at 4 p.m. for a panel discussion on housing and tangled titles featuring Councilmember-at-Large Katherine Gilmore Richardson, Department of Records Commissioner James P. Leonard, Esquire, and Philadelphia VIP Senior Staff Attorney Michael Jones, Esquire.

This will be the first in a series of conversations to help Philadelphians learn about tangled titles.

In most cases, folks who inherited their homes do not know they have a tangled title until they need resources and realize they cannot get them. During our virtual event, we will discuss how to find out if your title is tangled and provide you with the resources you need to fix this issue before it starts.

“How Tangled Titles Affect You and Your Family” will take place at 4 p.m. March 16. Those interested can register to attend online.

Katherine Gilmore Richardson is currently serving her first term as an at-large member of Philadelphia City Council. She is the youngest woman ever elected at-large and the youngest Black woman ever elected to City Council.

Yocasta Lora is the associate state director of outreach and advocacy at AARP Pennsylvania.

Broke in PhillyWHYY is one of over 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push towards economic justice. Follow us at @BrokeInPhilly.

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