In celebration of a $900,000 investment into the Howard University School of Law, Thomas W. Mitchell, director of the Initiative on Land, Housing and Property Rights at Boston College Law, gathers with Nia Hope Bess, chief of staff of corporate responsibility for JPMorgan Chase; Akobe Sandy, impact investment officer at Robert Wood Johnson Foundation; Sandra Thompson, director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency; Mark O’Donovan, CEO of Chase Home Lending; Tim Berry, head of corporate responsibility for JPMorgan Chase; Michael Ralph, professor and chair of Afro-American studies at Howard. (Credit: Photo courtesy of JP Morgan Chase)

By Megan Sayles,
AFRO Business Writer,

JPMorgan Chase and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) invested $900,000 in philanthropic capital on Oct. 3 to the Howard University (HU) School of Law to mitigate and resolve heirs property, or tangled title, cases. 

The investment will be used to establish the first-of-its-kind Estate Planning and Heirs Property Legal Clinic, which will provide pro-bono legal support to the District’s underserved communities.

“Homeownership can play a critical role in establishing wealth, especially among Black, Hispanic and Latino households. It builds more prosperous communities, creates an opportunity to secure equity and allows people to have stable housing that can lead to generational wealth,” said Tim Berry, global head of corporate responsibility and chairman of the Mid-Atlantic region for JPMorgan Chase. “But, for many minority families and those with limited wealth, there are laws that increase the risk of property loss and further undermine wealth generation. These laws are heirs property laws.” 

Heirs property commonly occurs when a homeowner dies before creating a will, resulting in multiple people having rights to ownership of the property. With no clear owner, any one heir can force the sale of the property, or partition sale. Heirs also face higher risks for property tax foreclosures. 

“In 2021, there were an estimated 440,000 heirs property cases across the country, equaling an estimated $41 billion in market value,” said Berry. “I know this issue can sound so specific that it might not hit close to home, but rest assured, it does. In D.C. alone, there were 67 heirs property cases totaling $300 million in market value as of November 2021.” 

JPMorgan Chase contributed $500,000 to investment, which will support the training of several HU law students and create the community legal clinic. RWJF supplied $400,000 to identify community needs and finance the clinic’s free legal services, which include estate planning and title resolution. 

“The scale of this problem is often overlooked. Heirs property is the leading cause of Black land loss, impacting over a third of Black-owned land,” said Akobe Sandy, impact officer for the RWJF. “It significantly contributes to the racial wealth gap in our country.” 

The next legal clinic led by HU’s law school will take place on Nov. 3 at JPMorgan Chase’s community branch in Southeast D.C.’s Skyland Town Center.

“What makes this initiative so unique is that often when we hear about challenges facing people of color in the housing market, we think of predatory lending, discrimination around credit scoring or algorithm discrimination. All of those are very tricky problems to tackle,” said Michael Ralph, chair of Afro-American studies at HU . “I think the virtue of the heirs property clinic is that it empowers families to discover what they can do to their homes. Some of the structural problems are beyond their power to address, but with the tangled title problem, they can begin to address it immediately.” 

Megan Sayles is a Report for America corps member.