Philadelphia skyline.

Referrals help families untangle titles, unlock resources

A quarter of the people in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, live below the poverty line — the highest rate of any American city. Compared to other East Coast cities, however, Philadelphia boasts a high homeownership rate, even among low-income families, due to the mass production of row homes for working-class families prior to World War II.

The convergence of these two realities leaves many Philadelphians unable to afford the upkeep of their homes, and deferred maintenance often snowballs into more expensive and serious issues. Dilapidated porches lead to injuries from falls. Leaking roofs spur mold, then asthma. Broken pipes cause unsafe water or no running water at all.

In 2010, Habitat Philadelphia began a home repair program to address the growing issue. Working alongside homeowners and volunteers, they complete the critical repairs that help preserve affordable homeownership while improving health and safety. In order to apply for the program, residents must provide proof of homeownership to ensure that Habitat’s work is permitted and benefits the intended recipient. This, it turns out, is a hurdle for the more than 14,000 Philadelphians with “tangled titles.”

These residents live in homes that they cannot prove they own on paper.

“There are many reasons for tangled titles,” says KC Roney, Habitat Philadelphia’s senior director of programs. Lack of a will is the main one. “In many neighborhoods in Philadelphia, there is a lot of multigenerational homeownership. And so much of this inability to establish ownership stems from an unclear line of succession of the house between family members.”

Headshot of  Rachel López, associate professor of law and director of the Community Lawyering Clinic.

Rachel López, associate professor of law and director of the Community Lawyering Clinic

In 2018, to help applicants navigate the legal process of untangling, Habitat Philadelphia began to refer homeowners to Drexel University’s Andy and Gwen Stern Community Lawyering Clinic. Each year, a new class of law students serves the clinic by working with and advocating for local residents on a number of legal topics, including property deeds. The law students assist residents in tracking down heirs to resolve disputes and filing petitions in court. Then they help put more permanent solutions in place.

“We assist community members with their individual cases, but we also try to identify holistic and systemic solutions that can resolve issues before they become entrenched legal problems,” says Rachel López, associate professor of law and director of the Community Lawyering Clinic. “Community legal education and will creation, in this instance, are critical to that.”

To the homeowners, the impact of the clinic’s work goes beyond a piece of paper. In addition to Habitat Philadelphia’s repair program, the home’s title also unlocks homestead exemptions on property taxes, payment assistance plans, utility relief programs and equity. “Getting the title resolved provides a clean slate. Giving homeowners broad access to resources and programs, even outside of Habitat, to help them stay in their homes, to age in place,” Roney says.

The need for affordable housing

A majority of Americans believe that it is challenging to find affordable quality housing in their communities and more than half of all adults say they have made at least one trade-off in order to cover their rent or mortgage.

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