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  • Writer's pictureGreater Dayton Volunteer Lawyers Project

Understanding Tangled Titles, Abandoned Property and Their Effects on Ohio Homeowners: A Call for Private Attorneys

Updated: Jun 19

Anastasija Mladenovska


June 18,2024 7:47 PM



Homeownership has traditionally been hailed as a cornerstone of the American dream. However, for many younger generations entering the economy today, this dream is increasingly distant. There's a growing sentiment among Gen Z that owning a house might be more of a punchline than a realistic goal.


In conversations around family dinners and financial planning, owning real estate is often considered the pinnacle. Yet, understanding the legal intricacies and planning required for homeownership can be daunting and costly. Financial advisory services remain out of reach for many, limiting access to crucial guidance.


For the average American living paycheck to paycheck, the daily grind leaves little room to contemplate the complexities of property ownership—especially when it comes to inherited homes. Amid financial challenges, priorities understandably focus on immediate family needs, often pushing off matters like wills and titles as burdensome and deferred indefinitely. 


A couple of years ago, the issue of twisted titles, sometimes called “heirs” property or  tangled titles became increasingly popular in Philadelphia as news broke out that the state had more than 10,000 of these negatively affecting economic stability, growth, residential communities and more often than not, those most marginalized. 


So what exactly are twisted titles and why did this term make national headlines?


In many urban areas, particularly those experiencing economic hardship such as the Dayton area, the issue of "tangled titles" is prevalent and it occurs when the legal ownership of a property is unclear, typically due to a failure to properly transfer the title after the death of the original owner. What this means is that the current homeowner who lives in the house and pays real estate taxes, maintains the home and lives in the community is not the legal owner of the property listed on the title/deed. 


In many cases, especially with low income individuals the topic of title transfer just never comes up because of the lack of knowledge or resources in navigating the legal environment. Sometimes the title transfer is never formalized and legally documented and homeowners do not realize the downside of not legally owning the property until they experience a financial hardship. The situation can become even more complicated if multiple heirs (people) are promised to“inherit” the house without a will or a clear title transfer which leads to further dissolution of family bonds and disputes.

 

Tangled titles cause many barriers for homeowners and affect communities disproportionately. The primary challenge is that homeowners who are not on the deed cannot tap into the full value of their homes and are not eligible for many benefits that come with owning real estate among which is building generational wealth.


Because technically homeowners with twisted titles do not own their home they can face eviction and legal battles, they do not have access to home equity loans, property tax relief programs, home repair grants and without the resources and knowledge they might be forced to permanently leave their property. Furthermore, when individuals come into a seemingly devastating situation like the former, becoming homeless and abandoning the house might seem like the only option. 


Abandoned and neglected properties then contribute to urban decay and pose safety hazards but more than anything when a property comes to legally be considered “abandoned” and facing twisted titles, the situation becomes increasingly complex oftentimes leading to the property becoming neglected. Both twisted titles and abandoned property pose immense problems in the Dayton area and broader Ohio landscape. In fact, 81,000 properties out of 3.8M residential properties in Ohio were considered vacant in 2019. 


According to Section 2308.03 of the Ohio Revised Code which highlights the expedited foreclosure on vacant and abandoned properties, when a residential property is deemed vacant and abandoned, Ohio law grants the mortgage holder (mortgagee) the right to enter and protect the property from potential damage. 

This provision applies when a property meets specific legal criteria defining it as vacant and abandoned. It empowers the mortgagee to take proactive measures to maintain the property's condition and prevent it from becoming a hazard. By entering the property, the mortgagee can implement measures to preserve its integrity, ensuring it does not fall into disrepair. This action is crucial in maintaining property values and upholding neighborhood standards.


However, If a mortgagee has not initiated foreclosure proceedings on a property which is the legal process through which a lender (the mortgagee) reclaims a property from a borrower who has defaulted on their mortgage payments, they may still enter and secure it under certain conditions specified in the mortgage contract or other legal documents. This emphasizes the importance of clear contractual provisions or legal authorization for such actions, ensuring compliance with property rights and responsibilities. 


The state has no right to residential property and twisted titles coupled with abandoned property are a firehouse to say the least. The problem of abandoned property in Ohio and particularly Dayton and Montgomery County as investigated by the Dayton Daily News in 2012 are not just an individual problem. In fact, as the newspaper stated at the time 800 of these properties were left by multiple individuals and businesses, particularly limited liability companies (LLC’s)  which left the area after losses of profit to seek better opportunities elsewhere and with no one to account for. Banks and lenders only contribute to this madness as foreclosures can take years and the houses cannot be sold because of their condition. 


Yet - a caveat is necessary here. This issue is far away from an individual problem. Twisted titles can be one reason for abandoned properties and are not an exhaustive list; however , understanding the relationship between the two phenomena is necessary to examine why these circumstances, as previously mentioned, disproportionately affect certain communities, particularly the most marginalized and racialized low-income neighborhoods. 


The Dayton community harbors a tragic history of redlining, a practice utilized in the past by the U.S. Judicial and Financial system to discriminate against African Americans and other marginalized groups from getting access to the credit environment for homeownership. Abandoned properties in many cases are a direct consequence of redlining and many regard twisted titles as an indirect practice of these policies because although the systematic legal practice has been terminated, the cultural attitudes remain. 


In fact, according to the Houston City Councilmember Tiffany D. Thomas, this relationship goes back to 1865 when Special Order No.15 was issued. This order aimed to allocate land to formerly enslaved people. Thomas claims that this short-lived promise left a legacy of mistrust and a practice of informal title transfers. 


While there is a cultural aspect to this issue, it is also important to say that the law hasn’t always historically kept with the needs of modern urban populations. Outdated laws can complicate the process of clearing titles, particularly for properties that have been informally transferred over many years. 


Finally, the process of clearing a title can be cumbersome and time-consuming. It often involves navigating complex legal and bureaucratic procedures, which can be a significant barrier for individuals without legal expertise or resources.


So what can a homeowner do in the situation of twisted titles?


Andrea Bopp Stark,  a staff attorney at the National Consumer Law Center’s Boston office and Sarah Bolling Mancini, the Co-Director of Advocacy focusing on foreclosures, mortgage lending, and credit reporting issues highlight multiple useful tactics that can be used by homeowners to effectively deal with problems with tangled titles however seeking legal help to understand the meaning and implication of these practices is crucial. 


Private attorneys play a crucial role in resolving tangled titles and ensuring families can securely remain in their homes. Here’s how legal professionals can make a significant impact:


Pro Bono Legal Assistance

By dedicating a portion of their practice to pro bono work, attorneys can provide vital legal services to those who cannot afford them. This includes helping families clear titles, navigate probate courts, and resolve disputes among heirs.


Education and Advocacy

Attorneys can educate communities about the importance of clear property titles and the steps needed to maintain them. Workshops, informational sessions, and community outreach can empower individuals with the knowledge they need to protect their homes.


Collaborative Efforts

Working with nonprofits, community organizations, and legal aid societies, private attorneys can form a network of support to address the tangled title issue comprehensively. These collaborations can provide holistic solutions that include legal, financial, and social support.


Policy Advocacy

Attorneys can advocate for legislative changes that simplify the process of clearing titles and provide more resources for low-income families. This can include pushing for reforms in probate laws, property tax relief measures, and funding for legal aid services.


The Greater Dayton Volunteer Lawyers Project needs private attorneys to join the fight against tangled titles. By volunteering your expertise and time, you can help prevent the displacement of families, reduce urban blight, and contribute to the revitalization of our communities.


Your involvement can make a tangible difference. 


The issue of tangled titles is more than a legal problem; it is a community crisis that affects the stability and vitality of our neighborhoods. By stepping up and offering your legal expertise, you can help secure the future for countless families and contribute to the fight against urban blight. Together, we can make a lasting impact and ensure that everyone has the opportunity to live in a safe, secure home.


Join us in this vital effort. Together, we can untangle the titles and weave a stronger, more resilient community.




Anastasija Mladenovska is a current legal intern at GDVLP and a rising political science, accountancy, and Russian, East European & Eurasian studies triple major at Miami University. She is passionate about helping and educating communities and wants to go into the legal field one day. 



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