Washtenaw County program helps Black residents win rightful ownership of inherited homes

Discriminatory practices led many Black families to purchase homes informally generations ago, leaving their descendants with no legal claim to their family homes. But a county program is working to change that.
Discriminatory practices led many Black families to purchase homes informally generations ago, leaving their descendants with no legal claim to their family homes. But Washtenaw County's Home for Generations program, spearheaded by Treasurer Catherine McClary, is working to change that by helping Black county residents establish legal ownership of inherited homes.

"What people don't realize in this country is that white Americans have seven times the wealth of Black Americans, on average, and the majority of wealth in this country is in a person's primary residence," McClary says. "... Back in the '30s, during the Great Depression; and in the '40s, when veterans were returning from World War II, our federal government actively excluded Black people from home ownership."

At that time, the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) established the first home loan system. Previously, people paid cash or drew up land contract agreements when buying a home. But the FHA, along with the Veterans Administration, baked restrictions into deeds that forbade loans to Black people.

"So Black people, Black families, were locked out of access to home ownership, and that means it's been difficult to transfer that wealth from generation to generation," McClary says.
Washtenaw County Treasurer Catherine McClary.
Practices like redlining, discriminatory lending, and racial segregation thus led Black families to purchase homes through land contracts or handshake agreements, and their descendants have continued to occupy these homes without legal documentation. Judicial Attorney Teresa Killeen says Home for Generations aims to "get the paperwork to match up with the reality" and give these homeowners the benefits and opportunities that come with legal ownership. Those include principal residence tax exemptions, homestead tax credits, conventional financing like a mortgage or home equity loan, and home mortgage interest tax deductions.

"There are huge benefits," McClary says.

McClary, who's been treasurer since 1997, made her first efforts to right institutional wrongs by working early in her tenure to change a state law that allowed predatory investors to acquire homes by paying taxes. McClary notes that her office is required by law to collect delinquent taxes, but she also exercises her authority to withhold properties from foreclosure.

"The Home for Generations project is just one of the more recent programs that we've implemented in order to help people to get their taxes paid up," she says.

McClary initially hatched the idea for Home for Generations in 2008, working with Probate Judge Julia Owdziej and Killeen to design and develop it.

"We have a common interest in social justice," Killeen says. "So when [McClary] was talking to me about these cases that she had, where people are in jeopardy of losing their home because there isn't a clear title to it, and that her office had exhausted its resources trying to resolve a clear title, she came up with the idea. And I was completely on board with trying to recruit a group of attorneys who could help with those cases."

McClary submitted a Home for Generations proposal and budget to the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners, assuming that the attorneys involved would require a stipend. But all two dozen attorneys Killeen approached to work on Home for Generations opted to volunteer their time and effort, and Owdziej has waived some fees associated with the program. McClary says the program has spent just about $1,000 since its inception, and has returned over $1 million in property wealth to families in 2019 and 2020 (data for 2021 is not yet available).
Judge Julia Owdziej.
"It's just an exceptional partnership," McClary says.

Home for Generations officially got off the ground in January 2019, starting with five or six cases. Sixteen more cases were added in early 2020, before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. At least 10 cases have been completed since the program's inception. (Beneficiaries of the program have been promised anonymity, so they could not be reached for comment.)

"There are multiple heirs in all kinds of places that have to be notified, and you have to have hearings, and it can be a slow, drawn-out process, especially with COVID," Killeen says. " … Also, documents, especially with property transfers, often need to be notarized. And to be able to get somebody in front of a notary public, when people are isolating at home, was a little tough and slowed a lot of things down."

A family's complicated dynamics can also slow the process. In one case, a widowed, common-law husband had been living in and taking care of a house for several years, though he had no legal ownership claim. In another, a woman who'd wanted a divorce from her long-estranged (but resistant) husband received legal help from Home for Generations attorneys to get a divorce and then legally establish home ownership. In yet another case, a family of three grown siblings who don't get along worked with a mediator to arrive at a compromise.

These issues make Home for Generations cases challenging, but all the more satisfying when they get worked out. McClary recalls the feeling of "celebration" when she was in court with one woman to get the deed to her home officially placed in her name. The woman was joined by her daughter, whose 21st birthday was that same day.

"The woman turned around to the attorneys and said, 'You know, I don't want this to happen to my daughter. Now that the deed's in my name, I would like to go before the judge and transfer the deed in my name and my daughter's name, so it will pass on to her when I go,'" McClary says. "And all of that was taken care of."

As news of the program's positive impact spreads, McClary and Killeen are hoping other communities across the country will use it as a model, and that more people within Washtenaw County will take advantage of its offerings.
Judicial Attorney Teresa Killeen.
"The African-American community, rightfully so, has a distrust of government," Killeen says. "There's a sense of, 'If I go down to the registrar of deeds and let them know I've been living in my dead grandfather's house for the last 35 years, I will somehow end up without the house.' … Once people are clear that, no, what we're trying to do is ensure that you have every legal entitlement that you need in order to prevent you from ever being evicted from this home, … then we get cooperation."

McClary is quick to point out that Home for Generations is a win-win for the county.

"If we had to do tax foreclosures and take all these people out of their homes, can you imagine the expense that we would be paying to the homeless shelters, to [Housing Access for Washtenaw County], to the Salvation Army, to SOS [Community Services]?" McClary says. "If we can bring these supports to people in their homes, or simply provide the legal resources and benefits that they're entitled to, then that's good public policy. It saves tax dollars. It improves neighborhoods. You don't have blight when you've got someone in the home, keeping it up. And it's not a foreclosure home being sold at a fire sale. So it's good policy all the way around."

It's also a proactive attempt to address injustice.

"It's a start toward recognizing that the reason people are in this situation is because of systemic racism," Killeen says. "And so, let's do something about that."

Jenn McKee spent more than a decade covering the arts for The Ann Arbor News and is now a freelance journalist and essayist. Follow her on Twitter (@jennmckee) and Instagram (@criticaljenn).

All photos by Doug Coombe.
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