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CWRU students create 'blueprint' to help homeowners with problematic, 'tangled' titles

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Posted at 6:22 PM, May 16, 2023

CLEVELAND — For college students, the weeks leading up to graduation typically bring about final exam cram sessions and the final touches on important class projects. However, for a trio of third-year law school students at Case Western Reserve University, their year-long project isn’t going to end when they graduate. Instead, in many respects, the project is just getting started.

The project, which spanned the entire academic year, seeks to identify and create solutions for a problem faced by scores of homeowners that often hides in plain sight: “tangled” property titles. Issues with tangled or “cloudy” property typically arise when an elderly parent dies, but the home is never legally transferred to relatives — even if the home is passed down through a will. Oftentimes, tangled titles can exist undetected for years and are only discovered when the new homeowner tries to sell, refinance or obtain a home equity loan to fund repairs.

The issues with tangled titles are all too common in urban communities and can leave homeowners confused, frustrated and vulnerable.

“This issue of tangled titles is such a dealbreaker for so many folks,” said Debbie Wilber, the associate director and research associate for the National Initiative on Mixed-Income Communities at the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences at CWRU. “This is a challenge across the country; this isn’t something that’s just limited to Buckeye-Woodhill or limited to Cleveland.”

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Wilber was on the team that planned and successfully secured $35 million in federal funding through HUD’s Choice Neighborhoods Implementation grant. The funding, which was later boosted by another $10 million allocation earlier this year, will be used to replace and redevelop CMHA’s aging Woodhill Homes complex with brand-new, high-quality housing. Retail and healthcare offerings are also included in the mixed-use development.

However, during the process of planning the transformational project, Wilber heard time and time again about the issue of tangled titles, particularly from local community development organizations. Although the City of Cleveland had hundreds of thousands of dollars available through a home repair assistance program, very few homeowners in the neighborhood were able to access it because of issues with their property titles.

“When I was asking, ‘Okay, what obstacles are there going to be to implement this plan?’ Everybody kept mentioning tangled titles. I thought, ‘What is that?’” Wilber said. “The initial idea was to put together a checklist. Of course, what we found out was that it was going to be a lot more complicated than that.”

Wilber contacted her colleagues from CWRU’s law school, including Matt Rossman, a professor of law and director of the Community Development Clinic.

“There was a real interest of the residents to be able to have access to the home repair funds, but they were running into this barrier,” Rossman said. “They would come to the table ready to apply for these funds, but they found out that they didn’t have a title that was clean enough or clear enough to be able to qualify for the funds.”

Although the process of unraveling a tangled property title can often be complex, lengthy and arduous, the process in which a title becomes tangled can often be relatively simple.

In a large number of cases, an elderly homeowner includes the property in a will, allowing his or her child to inherit the home upon their death.

Upon inheriting the home, the new homeowner continues to tend after the property, ensuring the taxes and utilities are paid. The new homeowner then goes to the bank to see if they qualified for a home equity loan. However, the new homeowner discovers that the title was still in the original homeowner’s name. For all intents and purposes, although the new homeowner had inherited the property, they legally do not own it. Because their name isn’t on the title, they are legally unable to do a number of things, including sell the property or secure equity lines of credit.

The process of untangling the title can grow even more complicated — not to mention expensive — if there are encumbrances like tax liens.

“There is no neighborhood in Cleveland that does not face some form of tangled title crisis within its boundaries,” Rossman said. “The longer you wait, the more complicated it gets. I think that’s what we find in a lot of the scenarios that are being brought to us. This has been going on for years, and it’s now hard to track everybody down, and it’s hard to transfer title. You add all those together, and then all of a sudden, you start to think about 30, 40, 50 percent of the homes in the neighborhood. Especially in a lower-resourced neighborhood, they face some impairment to their title and therefore won’t be able to access the [home repair] funds.”

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At the beginning of the fall semester, three law school students, David Bauman, Austin Levan and Rebecca Kimmelfield, set out on a fact-finding mission to identify and learn about possible solutions to tangled titles in addition to exploring different funding mechanisms for homeowners. The trio put a lot of their focus on ‘tangled title funds’ that have been established in cities like Philadelphia, where studies found more than a half-million property titles had some sort of entanglement.

Kimmelfield, who plans on practicing intellectual property law upon graduation, knew she wanted to experience an area of law she otherwise had little experience in. Upon learning of the project, Kimmelfield was all in.

“The research that we did, it’s laying the foundation to have a very real impact on people,” Kimmelfield said. “For the city of Cleveland, for the Buckeye-Woodhill neighborhood and also other neighborhoods, to adopt a tangled title fund model, I think that would be a very helpful solution.”

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The students identified two existing assistance programs — the state’s Save the Dream Ohio initiative as well as a separate utility assistance program — that could be available to homeowners looking to defray the costs associated with a tangled title. Although a savvy homeowner could theoretically untangle a title on their own, the complicated process of doing so typically requires the help of an attorney.

“My favorite quote from their report is, 'this is a very expensive problem that requires an inexpensive solution,'” Wilber said.

Ideally, the students’ tangled title program would utilize the legal assistance from attorneys seeking pro bono work and the financial assistance from grants and other funding sources to cover the court fees and encumbrances. The process of putting together a legal blueprint provides a great learning opportunity for the students, Rossman said.

“It’s a nice compliment to the other legal work that the students do,” Rossman said. “It has given them a chance to really stand back and think big picture about legal services and how they can impact communities. It’s been rewarding in a whole number of ways.”

Although her work on the project is complete and ready to be passed on to next year’s students, Kimmelfield is excited to see where the project goes.

“I find it very inspiring. I’m very grateful to know that the work that I did in law school is not going to end with me graduating,” Kimmelfield said.