Bills Address Black Families’ Land Loss in Division of Property and Waives Court Fees for Low-Income Residents
Today, the DC Council’s Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety, chaired by Councilmember Charles Allen, will vote on two bills to reduce racial inequity and expand access to the civil legal system.
The mark-up vote will be streamed on Councilmember Allen’s Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/CMcharlesallen
“Structural racism and classism are all around us, including in the very foundations of the District’s legal system. In this case, property law and even the front door to the courthouse have denied, undervalued, and systemically shut out residents, particularly Black and Brown and low-income District residents,” said Councilmember Allen. “Today, the Committee is approving bills to make justice real for everyone, regardless of their race, income, or legal knowledge.”
First, the Partition of Real Property Act protects homeowners by creating a new legal process when one or more co-owners wants to sell their stake in the property. This practice most often relates to so-called “heirs’ property”, which is real property like a home or land owned by multiple heirs and acquired through inheritance without a will. For decades, primarily low-income Black families across the country have fallen victim to heirs selling their rights in shared property to third parties who then force a sale against the will and interest of other heirs in the family, often below market value. These forced sales – or “partitions” - rob the other heirs of both true market value for the property and potentially a place to live.
This bill protects property owners, including heirs, seeking to maintain their stake in an inherited property by requiring a court-ordered appraisal to determine the property’s fair market value, giving co-tenants the right of first refusal to buy out the other co-tenants, and requiring that the property be sold at the court-determined fair market value. The bill closely follows the Uniform Partition of Heirs Property Act, model legislation that has been passed in nearly half the states.
“One of the most insidious ways Black Americans have lost wealth and land is when exploitative third parties buy a slice of a valuable inheritance and force everyone else in the family out. About three in four African Americans don't have a will. And when there isn't a clear will, property ownership can easily get complicated, and families are vulnerable to speculators. This happens all the time. That's why these legal protections are so incredibly important in preserving Black wealth and homeownership here and nationwide,” said Councilmember Allen.
The second bill, the Expanding Fee Waivers for Low-Income Litigants Amendment Act, reforms the process for low-income residents to file cases in civil court by expanding eligibility to waive filing fees. The current process is burdensome, forcing people to fill out lengthy applications detailing their financial information, which then have to be reviewed by busy Superior Court judges. The bill, instead, makes more low-income public benefit program participants automatically eligible for waivers, and in doing so, will dramatically expand access to the courts.
“If you don’t have the money to enforce your rights in court, then you don’t actually have those rights. Because of the barriers of today's fee waiver process, the law is really telling tenants to forget about their landlord-tenant disputes, domestic violence victims that a filing fee is worth more than their safety, and workers that they don’t deserve their day in court,” said Councilmember Allen. “We should be opening the courthouse doors, not nickel-and-diming people. This is a small change to a court process with big implications for access to the justice system.”
The two bills will next be considered by the full Council on October 4.
Councilmember Allen will also be advancing additional legislation to reduce racial inequity in the justice system this fall.