Heirs’ Property and Its Effects on Black Land Ownership in Cities

February 14, 2024 - (4 min read)

By Houston City Councilmember Tiffany D. Thomas

Black Americans have a complicated relationship with land ownership, pointing back to Special Order No. 15, issued January 16, 1865, which intended to redistribute 400,000 acres (about half the area of Yosemite National Park) of land and a loaned mule to formerly enslaved people in forty-acre partitions. While the promise was short-lived and benefitted a small percentage of former slaves, the remnants of mistrust created a cultural practice of transferring property informally – without a deed – also known as Heir Property (or Tangled Titles). 

Heirs’ property is one of the most unhinged forms of land acquisition that contributes to limiting generational wealth and community development activities led by individuals, nonprofits, and governments – ultimately resulting in Black Land Loss and internal strife between family members regarding ownership. Historically, Black Americans actively pursued home and land ownership as a symbol of liberation, self-reliance, and economic independence; however, as Black Americans migrated from the South to the North to pursue industrial jobs, the responsibility of the land and the long-range estate planning went largely unaddressed. Research reflects Black Americans lost 80% of land, rural and agricultural, acquired between 1907 and 2007 – significantly widening the wealth gap.

Generational wealth disparities, stemming from historical injustices such as discriminatory policies and systemic racism, have left many Black families with complex heirs’ property issues. By delving into the complexities of these property arrangements during Black History Month, we shed light on the broader narrative of Black American struggles and triumphs in the face of adversity.

Cities benefit from clear property ownership, facilitating effective urban planning and development. Municipalities can implement targeted community development strategies when they have accurate data on heirs’ properties, contributing to more sustainable and equitable growth. Heirs’ properties are repositories of family histories, cultural traditions, and a collective past. The physical structures and the land may hold stories of resilience, migration, the broader cultural heritage of a community, and the richness of your city. Establishing clear ownership through legal means is crucial for protecting the rights of heirs. It helps prevent disputes, ensures fair distribution of assets, provides a foundation for responsible property management, and provides local governments with options for proper redevelopment.

Unfortunately – many states and local governments have not adopted any local ordinances addressing this cultural practice, thus affecting how cities can deploy community development efforts – in neighborhoods that need the most help. Here are considerations for local cities to adopt:

  • Uniform Collection – The Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta reported one of the issues related to heirs’ properties is the lack of consistent data collection by the county tax assessor – before cities can address the problem, they first must know how prevalent the issue is within their jurisdiction. To restore the complicated relationship between Black Americans and land ownership – standardized heirs’ property data collection supports transparency and accountability in governance. Cities can use this information to inform the public about the extent of heirs’ property challenges, the progress of mitigation efforts, and even co-create a new pathway to economic freedom. 
  • Local Ordinance – As cities create plans for disaster preparedness and economic revitalization, they must make a pathway for residents, property owners, and planners to work with and in neighborhoods that need assistance clearing titles of vacant and abandoned land, which would ultimately relieve funds routinely dedicated to removing blight, maintenance of abandoned property to invest in substantial revitalization projects.
  • Higher Education – Universities, especially Historically Black Colleges and Universities and Land Grant Institutions, can play a vital role in partnering with cities to address and mitigate heirs’ property issues through collaborative initiatives. First and foremost, academic institutions can leverage their expertise in law, urban planning, and community development to research property challenges specific to the city’s context. This research can inform the development of comprehensive policies tailored to address local issues, ultimately resulting in long-term results.


Houston City Councilmember Tiffany D. Thomas is an Assistant Professor of Community Development at Prairie View A&M University. She serves as the chair of Housing and Community Affairs Committee for the City of Houston and is a member of the Community Economic Development Committee for the National League of Cities. 

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