Eric Luster grew up in a three-bedroom 1920s-era home on a quiet dead end street in Homewood. It was a self-described good childhood, but he thought he would have a better future in Atlanta, Ga., so he moved out of town to raise his five children.
When his mother got sick in 2007, he moved home to take care of her. A year later, she passed away and his father followed in 2013. Neither of them had an official will to pass ownership of the family home to their son.
“We never really spoke of the title or anything being changed because, you know, there wasn’t nothing wrong,” Luster said.
So he simply stayed in the home, paid the taxes, kept up on the utilities and didn’t think about it.
According to Operation Better Block Executive Director Jerome Jackson, Luster’s story is not uncommon but his situation is a ticking time bomb known as a tangled title.
“You have a parent who owns a home, who passes away and they have no will, so then that property becomes the property of every one of their descendants,” Jackson said.
Sorting out a tangled title can be tricky because you need to get approval from every single heir — including those who have moved away and might not have ever seen the home.
“For any one of those descendants to own that property, they have to get every other descendent to give up their small portion,” Jackson said. “Therein lies the tangle.”
It’s an especially common problem in Pittsburgh, with the third highest homeownership rate in the nation at 73.4 percent.
A hidden house problem
Most people don’t recognize their problem. The city and the mortgage company won’t bang on the door to say the title is in the wrong name. Generally, if the mortgage, tax and utility checks clear, it's OK.
But eventually, the title has to be cleared in order to sell the home or tap into city or nonprofit services, like a free hot water heater or home repairs, said Operation Better Block Community Development Manager Demi Kolke.
“A big one is (free) weatherization," she said. "But a pre qualifier for that is that the title is in the homeowner’s name.”
Others learn they are not the titled owner when they try to get a home equity loan to fix a roof or sagging porch and are denied by the bank. Some get frustrated and just abandon the homes.
“People were leaving and walking away from the house because they couldn’t get it fixed up because they weren’t the legal owner and they don’t know how to become the owner, they just pack up and go,” Jackson said.
Mayor Bill Peduto's administration has an unwritten policy that it will not foreclose on tax delinquent homes that are occupied. Chief of Staff Kevin Acklin said the city is moving forward on taking control of abandoned parcels.
“We’re looking to unlock those liabilities, convert those to assets, so we can utilize those for purposes of development,” Acklin said. “This is the reason why you see disinvestment. Because the private market only touches properties that are clean.”
In many cases, the city is forgoing collection of past-due taxes in an effort to make it cheaper and easier for developers.
“Otherwise you are just guaranteeing that they will continue to drag upon a neighborhood,” Acklin said.
Acklin has a map showing every tax delinquent, vacant, abandoned and city-held property. It’s a patchwork that reaches into every neighborhood, but disproportionately hits low-income neighborhoods.
Grassroots efforts to keep people in their homes
Operation Better Block is working with the city, but it would prefer to see individual home ownership as the solution to neighborhood disinvestment rather than commercial developers.
“Homewood should not become the next East Liberty,” Kolke said. “It’s very important to secure (the homeowner’s) place in the neighborhood.”
The organization provides a free service to help people take legal ownership of their homes. However, grant money is limited— Operation Better Block can only help about 20 residents a year and the cost of privately untangling titles can exceed the value of the home.
The legal process is also often confusing and lengthy.
Volunteer lawyers at the Pittsburgh Pro Bono Partnership are hoping to cut a path through the red tape.
“We could take a case and fix it and then take the next case and fix it. But all we’re doing is fixing it one at a time,” said Peter Lewis, Pittsburgh Pro Bono Partnership volunteer and attorney at Stoll Keenon Ogden. “We’ve got a bigger picture in mind.”
That bigger picture is to build a template that lawyers can use to quickly and easily move the process through the courts and county departments.
That means not only figuring out a step-by-step plan, it also means demonstrating to judges and administrators that untangling titles does not have to be met by them with confusion or trepidation.
“We came to an arrangement that until we could iron out the process for succeeding through the orphans court procedure they would put sort of a hold on all of the new potential cases that are coming in,” said Kent Boswell, Pittsburgh Pro Bono Partnership volunteer and attorney at Stoll Keenon Ogden. “We would like to be able to establish some success before the flood gates open.”
Boswell and Lewis hope to have the test case through the system early in 2017.
Philadelphia has gone through the same process and is being used as a model for the effort in Pittsburgh. Lewis and Boswell are also searching for grant money to help cover court and other fees; something that is key to Philadelphia’s success.
For Eric Luster, the process was relatively simple. There were no delinquent taxes or other liens to pay.
“I got some affidavits I had to get signed by my siblings," he said. "One is in Atlanta and two of them are here. We got them filled out, they sent them back and within two months the deed was here in my name."
Luster now has to start making plans to pass the property to his five kids and seven grand children. He said most of the homes on his street still belong to the families that owned them when he was a kid. But he has no idea if any of the titles have been properly passed down to the next generation.