The City of Gainesville is discussing the possibility of creating a position to handle “heirs’ property” — land that has been passed down from generation to generation without a will.
This informal system of ownership makes it difficult to determine the legal owners of a property, many of those impacted being Black. Landowners are left vulnerable to others obtaining their land, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture has even recognized heirs’ property as “the leading cause of Black involuntary land loss.”
The members of Gainesville’s Race and Equity Subcommittee on Wednesday looked at how they can foster racial equity in the city by correcting the problem.
City Commissioner Harvey Ward brought the idea to the subcommittee meeting and described the effects that the position could have on those who inherit the land by helping them gain rights to ownership.
“One family member is living there, thinking this is my house, but the truth is they don’t have clear title to that property, so they can’t insure it properly, they can’t borrow money against it,” he said. “It’s a place to keep their stuff and call theirs, but they’re not enjoying the actual benefits of property ownership.”
According to Ward, there are at least 833 heirs’ properties in Gainesville. He said they are almost exclusively owned by Black families.
The commissioner went on to address how the presence of heirs’ properties impacts both the people who are inheriting the land and the people who live in affected neighborhoods.
“The people on the block around you suffer. The neighborhood suffers, and the whole city then suffers because not only do you not have your full rights as a property owner, but the value of the property is exceedingly low,” he said.
Ward said this initiative will help people actually obtain the rights they assume they already do.
Rather than appointing someone to oversee this issue, City Commissioner Gail Johnson suggested that the city fund organizations that are already doing this work to expedite the process.
“My fear is that if we let this go on any longer, then we won’t have any more homeownership of, homeownership in Black neighborhoods,” she said.
Johnson, the chair of the subcommittee, said she likes the idea of partnering with organizations because of the amount of time it would take to hire someone for the position.
The subcommittee tentatively agreed to meet again in September, with this idea likely coming up for discussion soon at a full City Commission meeting.