Another way the poor and their land are separated

Andrew Kahrl‘s talk this afternoon at APA was “The Plight of Black Coastal Landowners in the Sunbelt South and Its Lessons for Post–Housing Bubble America.”

He used examples from New Hanover County (NC) and Virginia Beach (VA).  A hundred years ago, coastal land wasn’t really good for farming, and folks were aware of the danger of storms, so it tended to be cheap. Poor black farmers wanted to own their own land, and this was what they could get. 

Many descendants of these farmers migrated to opportunities in the north and far west, others stayed behind.  Blacks did not trust southern legal processes, and so often died intestate.  Who then owns the land?

It turns out there is a process for this, called “heirs property.” Each descendant has an equal interest in the land, and this interest is in turn divided among grandchildren.  If some have moved north while others remain, you have what Kahrl described as the “problem of absentee owners having equal status to those actually using the land.”

So, if you are the second generation that’s moved north, and you have, say, a one-sixteenth interest in a few acres of land, and someone offers to buy your interest, then you might– especially if you’re short of cash– agree to sell.  The new one-sixteenth owner can now go to court and demand a partition.  If the local heirs and affluent and knowledgeable about legal processes, they can buy him out.  Otherwise, and especially if the property has potential for resort or other high-value use, they might be effectively forced to sell the land.

The Virginia Beach example focused more on property tax liens.  If you fail to pay your real estate tax, eventually the County will offer your taxes for sale, meaning someone else will pay your taxes for you.  You then are obligated to pay the taxes, plus interest, in order to redeem your property.  In that time and place, there was no requirement that the landowner be directly notified of the lien–  a newspaper listing was considered sufficient.  Of course many people lost their land.

Both these examples are from the old Confederacy, and of course race was a big factor.  And both are coastal, which is only a small fraction of all farmland.  But they are really just examples of the invariable tendency, for private ownership of land (or other privilege) to become concentrated. For whatever reason, some people are cash-strapped, and as a result lose their land to people with more money. An effective way to prevent it is for the community to collect the full rental value of land, so the speculator cannot profit from owning land she does not use. The only other way that I can imagine would be some sort of forced redistribution of land from time to time.

Kahrl also said that the banksters– he specifically mentioned Bank of America– are aggressively participating in the on-line tax lien auctions which are nowadays conducted by many counties. I hadn’t heard of this, but how could it not be true? Another way to get poor people in debt to you, and maybe end up owning their houses.

Kahrl’s talk will probably be posted here within a few days.

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