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October 28, 2019

VIDEO: Senate Passes Jones Amendment to Fund Heirs’ Property Program

VIDEO: Senate Passes Jones Amendment to Fund Heirs’ Property Program

WASHINGTON – By a vote of 91-1, the Senate passed an amendment this evening introduced by Senator Doug Jones (D-Ala.) to help heirs’ property landowners secure a clear title for their land. The amendment to the FY2020 Agriculture Appropriations bill includes $5 million to fund a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) program Senator Jones secured in the 2018 Farm Bill. His provision authorized the Farm Service Agency to make loans that will help families resolve heir’s property ownership and succession issues.

Senator Jones took to the Senate floor immediately before the vote to encourage his colleagues to support the amendment. Watch his full remarks here.

Heirs’ property is land that has been informally passed down within families, often for several generations, and can lead to costly legal complications and prevent landowners from qualifying for federal assistance. Heirs’ property is predominantly owned by African American farmers and producers and an estimated 60-percent of minority-owned land is projected to be heirs’ property. Challenges associated with heirs’ property status are the leading cause of involuntary land loss among African Americans. Landowners of heirs’ property also cannot qualify for USDA loans necessary for farming, receive disaster relief funding, or use their land as collateral in private lending. More background on heirs’ property and the amendment are here.

Over the past year, Senator Jones has led a bipartisan effort in the U.S. Senate to help these landowners gain fair access to federal programs and to make it easier to resolve legal issues that result from their heirs’ property status. In addition to the re-lending provision, Senator Jones also secured a provision in the 2018 Farm Bill to help heirs’ property owners obtain a USDA farm number, which is key to accessing assistance from the agency’s programs.

Video of Senator Jones’ speech can be found here, and a rush transcript of his remarks can be found below.

U.S. Senate Chamber

Senator Jones introduces his heirs’ property amendment

October 28, 2019

Note: transcription edited for clarity

SENATOR JONES: I rise today, Mr. President, to urge my colleagues to take an important step to correct one of the great injustices in America, an injustice that many in this body may not have a full appreciation for because it just might not affect too many of your particular constituents. I am speaking of the injustices faced by real property owners known as heirs’ property owners.

These landowners, who are typically African-American farmers and producers in the Deep South, own land that has been informally passed down within families, often for several generations, without any clear title. Sadly, that is often led to costly legal complications, it’s prevented landowners from qualifying for federal assistance and in many cases resulted in actual loss of land ownership.

This issue overwhelmingly impacts African American land ownership, of which an estimated 60 percent is heirs’ property, and created barriers to building generational wealth.

It is no coincidence Mr. President that this has impacted Black landowners when you consider the challenges faced by previous generations of African Americans faced to purchase, that they had to face the obstacles in purchasing land, just to purchase their land, the obstacles that they faced, to obtain legal services, and to have their wills prepared. The heirs’ property challenges facing these families today is yet another vestige of the Jim Crow era that with some exceptions has lasted far too long and that we must seek to correct.

These injustices have had long lasting consequences for the families who have struggled to prove their claims, including the untold emotional cost for those who have seen their family land taken or sold out from under them.

Because a significant portion of minority-owned rural land was passed down through generations as heirs’ property, these farmers and ranchers have been unable to obtain farm numbers and thus, access to a multitude of USDA programs. Those programs are vital to these landowners, who already face significant risk and uncertainty in their work.

That’s why, when I came to the Senate last year, I teamed up with my friend from South Carolina, Senator Scott, to work together to initiate changes that will start to help these farmers gain access to federal aid and help us better understand the full spectrum of challenges they face as a result of their heirs’ property status.

I’m really proud of the fact that we secured several provisions in the final 2018 Farm Bill addressing heirs’ property and I want to thank Senators Roberts and Stabenow for their assistance.

One of the biggest components that was included will allow heirs’ property owners, with the appropriate documentation, to obtain USDA farm numbers so that they can gain access to the department’s programs like crop insurance and disaster relief.  However, that is just one of the obstacles they face today.

Another provision focuses on consolidating land ownership.

Heirs often faced with issues of “fractional” ownership among relatives. Their own family had fractional shares of the land that has been passed down for generations.  That increases the chances of one heir partitioning the land or causing the land to be lost due to a tax default.

Some states even require the entire property to be sold if the courts find that dividing the land would prejudice one owner.

Under these circumstances, it is no wonder that between 1910 and 1997 an estimated 90-percent of land owned by African Americans in this country was lost due to heirs’ property issues.

Mr. President, that statistic bears repeating and emphasizing. Between 1910 and 1997 an estimated 90-percent of land owned by African Americans in the United States was lost due to heirs’ property issues.

But last year, together we embarked on the journey to right these wrongs. The 2018 Farm Bill gave authority to the USDA Secretary to make loans to eligible entities, like cooperatives and credit unions that have experience helping minority farmers, so that they can re-lend funds to assist heirs with undivided interests to resolve ownership and succession on farmland.

My amendment—that we will be voting on shortly—will provide $5 million to help get this program off the ground. That is the same amount of money that is included in the House version of the appropriations bill.

This is an important next step to fulfill the intent of last year’s Farm Bill and to help these families maintain land that is rightfully theirs.

I urge my colleagues to join me in supporting this amendment and continuing our efforts, together, to remove these barriers and right these wrongs.

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