New hope for heirs property owners

The owners of heirs property often struggle to maintain their land, earn enough income from it to pay taxes and fend off increasing pressure from developers. Unlocking the land’s value can make the difference between holding on to their property and losing it after generations of family ownership.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture could offer crucial assistance, but without a formal title to the property, the owners are cut off from such help.

That thankfully would change in the U.S. Senate’s version of the 2018 Farm Bill, which would give heirs property owners access to USDA programs aimed at making them self-sustaining and conserving their land. The provision should be a part of any final bill worked out by Congress.

Most heirs property in the Lowcountry is rural land that was bought by or deeded to African-Americans following emancipation. The land often has been passed down through the years without a will, so it has become a tangled web of ownership that includes multiple heirs. Such an ownership structure makes the land vulnerable to forced sale through the courts, according to the nonprofit Center for Heirs’ Property Preservation.

“The heirs property provision in the 2018 Farm Bill is an important acknowledgment of the issues that have long challenged heirs property owners, and opens a critical door for them to get the help they need to develop their family land as an economic asset for future generations,” said Tish Lynn, the center’s director of communications.

By some estimates 60 percent of the land owned by African-Americans in the United States is heirs property, according to Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., who worked with Sen. Doug Jones, D-Ala., to address the heirs property issue in the farm bill.

Keeping the land in the hands of families also helps retain its traditional agricultural use, which in turn preserves some of the Lowcountry’s unspoiled beauty and conserves its natural resources. That becomes more important each day as development in Charleston County and along the rest of the coast continues to spread into these once-rural areas.

Locally, members of the African American Community Historic Commission have been working with Mount Pleasant’s Historical Commission and Charleston County Council to develop protections. These could include specialized zoning, deed restrictions, tax relief and perhaps a community land trust to buy property that would otherwise be sold to housing developers.

And in 2016, then-Gov. Nikki Haley signed into law the Clementa Pinckney Partition of Heirs Property Act. It’s designed to prevent developers from buying part of an inherited property and forcing the sale of the entire parcel, often below market value, through the courts. It offered an overdue but welcome layer of protection.

The additional help for heirs property owners is contained in the $428 billion federal farm bill, a lumbering mass of subsidies and regulations. Perhaps the most controversial issue is the House version’s work requirement for people in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the nation’s largest food aid program for the poor. That requirement is not in the Senate version and may not survive a conference committee set up to hammer out differences in the two bills.

The Senate version also retains more conservation funding, with the House proposal making deeper cuts to the Conservation Stewardship Program that encourages farmers to address soil, air and water quality. The two sides also will battle over farm-subsidy payments, which the Senate limited in its version.

While these contentious issues will garner the headlines, the much-needed assistance for heirs property owners must be included in any final bill. Helping families retain their land should easily have the support of both Democrats and Republicans.