Gilbert LLP Helps Pass DC Law Protecting Disadvantaged Property Owners From Real Estate Speculators

On November 21, 2022, DC Mayor Muriel Bowser signed into law the Partition of Real Property Act of 2022, which protects owners of heirs property, often from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, from being victimized by real-estate speculators under prior partition law.  Gilbert LLP partner Richard Shore and associate Rachel Jennings were actively involved on a pro bono basis in pursuing this legislation, among other things helping to assemble coalitions to support the legislation, working with legislators and their staffs, securing the testimony of key leaders at hearings on the legislation, and themselves testifying in favor of it.  They supported similar efforts in Maryland, where analogous legislation was passed earlier this year.

The Act protects heirs-property owners from losing the generational wealth that accumulates in family property that has been passed down for generations.  Heirs property is real estate that passes to heirs by operation of law rather than being passed down through wills or trusts, with the result that over generations, ownership can be broadly held by family-member tenants-in-common who are not necessarily even aware of each other.

The Act closes loopholes that have permitted real estate speculators to acquire a single share of heirs property from one tenant and force a sale of the entire property at auction at a fraction of its fair market value, often times depriving families of generational real estate wealth and property that has significant cultural, historical, economic, and personal significance.  Outdated partition laws across the country have had a particularly pernicious impact on economically disadvantaged property owners without ready access to lawyers and real estate professionals, and it is a significant reason that African-American real-property ownership has decreased dramatically over the last hundred years.  But this issue impacts all races and ethnicities, across rural and urban areas, and at every socioeconomic level.

Councilmember Charles Allen, the Chairperson of the Committee on Judiciary and Public Safety where the bill was reviewed and who shepherded the legislation through the DC Council, made this bill a top committee priority.  DC Council Chair Phil Mendelson was the original sponsor of the legislation.  Mayor Bowser’s signature on this bill comes after the DC Council’s unanimous approval and is consistent with her goal on taking office to pursue “a fair shot for every DC resident.”  The new law will become effective once the 30-day period for Congressional review of all DC legislation passes.

The DC statute is a version of the Uniform Partition of Heirs Property Act (“UPHPA”) promulgated by the Uniform Law Commission.  The law was drafted by Professor Thomas Mitchell, who currently holds the Robert F. Drinan, SJ, Endowed Chair at Boston College Law School.  Professor Mitchell was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, also known as a “Genius Grant,” for having dedicated his career to “[r]eforming laws and developing policy solutions addressing mechanisms by which Black and other disadvantaged American families have been deprived of their land, homes, and real estate wealth.”

With the enactment of the Partition of Real Property Act by DC, 22 jurisdictions have now enacted versions of the UPHPA to protect the property rights and preserve the wealth of some of our communities’ most vulnerable and underrepresented populations.  Similar bills are pending in 7 other states.  In addition to protecting owners of heirs property from being unfairly deprived of their land and homes, these laws have other positive impacts across these jurisdictions, including unlocking access to resources, funding, and educational materials that will allow property owners to better protect, preserve, and benefit from their land, which as a collateral benefit will create significant positive conservation and environmental benefits.

Gilbert LLP is a Washington-based law firm specializing in litigation and strategic risk management, insurance recovery and complex dispute resolution.