BBC reports on South Carolina “heirs’ property” saga

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A December 5 article in BBC News Magazine entitled “Gullah Geechee: Descendants of slaves fight for their land”, outlines the struggles of property owners in Jackson Village to save their homes.

Jackson Village is one of three black communities in Plantersville, an unincorporated area of Georgetown County located about six miles north of the Town of Georgetown on Highway 701. The area is described as consisting of neat brick bungalows, set back form the road and protected from Highway 701 by a dense forest.

The BBC article, written by Brian Wheeler, describes 20 homes in Jackson Village being put up for auction because of the failure to pay taxes on a new sewer system. Local authorities apparently required residents to pay for hooking up to the new system because septic tanks were contaminating drinking water and becoming a health hazard. The residents complain that they were forced to pay even if their septic tanks were working well. The cost for each resident is $250 per year for the next 20 years.

Plantersville sign

Photo courtesy of BBC.com

The land is heirs’ property, land that has been passed down through the generations, usually without the benefit of deeds or probated estates. Many heirs’ property owners can trace their roots back to West African slaves who gained property rights during Reconstruction. These owners often allowed their properties to pass through the generations without formalities because they were denied access to the legal system, or because they didn’t understand it or trust it or could not afford it.

Where generations of landowners own property as tenants in common, maintaining ownership can become a risky proposition. All of the heirs own the property, whether or not they ever set foot on it.  Living on the land and paying taxes on it is certainly not a prerequisite.

Many of these properties are in or near valuable coastal areas where developers are eager to gain access.  A developer can buy the interest of one tenant in common to gain the same rights as the tax-paying residents. But distant family members looking for money can also create havoc. Partition actions are instituted, legal fees are incurred, and the result may be that the property is sold quickly and for less than fair market value.

Photo courtesy of Chicago Tribune

Thankfully, our legislature has recognized and addressed this problem. On September 22, Governor Haley signed legislation that honored the memory of Senator Clementa C. Pinkney, a victim of the Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church mass shooting in Charleston on June 17, 2015. The new law is now known as the Clementa C. Pinckney Uniform Partition of Heirs’ Property Act, and it will become effective January 1, 2017.

The new law requires independent appraisals and open-market sales to ensure heirs receive fair prices. The new act would not prevent sales for the failure to pay taxes as described in the BBC article, but it should make sales begun by developers and distant heirs more impartial and advantageous for all property owners.

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