by Ellen Cheek, Staff Attorney, Florida Senior Legal Helpline
In low-income communities throughout the country, generations of families live in houses and mobile homes to which they may be legally entitled, but for which they lack proper record title. Title-challenged residents commonly include heirs who cannot afford to probate the property after the record owner’s death, or those whose “do-it-yourself deed” results in an invalid conveyance.
Often, title problems arise in the context of disaster – only those with title are eligible for FEMA and many other forms of disaster-related relief to repair and rebuild. Without assistance to their low-income residents, entire communities can be devastated. One need only look to New Orleans to understand the magnitude of the problem; after Hurricane Katrina, a program called The Pro Bono Project Greater NOLA tackled more than 6,000 title cases in order to facilitate relief for low-income residents. The efforts of legal service and pro bono private attorneys were heroic. Advocates worked to remedy title defects when time was of the essence, but the system was crippled by storm-related conditions. The task took years in some cases, and the greatest impact was on the most vulnerable residents. For more information about the disparate impact on our client populations, view the video “Achieving Equity in Housing Recovery.”
Policymakers have learned much about disaster response from Katrina, and advocates for the poor will always confront countless issues in the wake of a disaster. However, title issues present an opportunity to be proactive. Title deficiencies are pre-existing; fortunately, so are the remedies. Recently, Bay Area Legal Services in Tampa, Florida, home of the Florida Senior Legal Helpline, partnered with the Hillsborough County Bar Association to present a training on clearing title for low-income house and mobile home residents. In addition to receiving substantive materials about legal remedies and information about how to obtain indigent waivers of filing fees, attorney participants were given free CLE credits in exchange for committing to take at least one pro bono case within twelve months. They were also promised access to a roster of seasoned mentor attorneys. Training sponsors hope that the program will be replicated throughout Florida. The materials could be adapted for national use as well.
The benefits of such a proactive project are clear – providing low-income residents with clear title allows access not only to disaster-related relief, but to community development funds and property tax exemptions designed to benefit vulnerable homeowners at any time. That assistance, in turn, helps maintain the integrity of entire communities. There is no place like home – if you can prove title.
Ellen Cheek has been a full-time attorney with the Florida Senior Legal Helpline at Bay Area Legal Services since 2006. She has provided civil legal advice and resolved legal problems for thousands of elderly Floridians during that time. Ellen’s interest in elder law issues began in 1975 when she was hired as the first staff attorney for Senior Advocates, a unit of the Legal Aid Society of San Mateo County, California. An honors graduate of Mount Holyoke College and the University of Santa Clara School of Law, Ellen is licensed to practice in Florida, California, and the District of Columbia.