Resolving heirs’ property issues is an essential step on the path to rural economic independence.

For the past eight years, the Center for Heirs’ Property Preservation has provided education and direct legal services to help heirs’ property owners obtain clear title to keep their family land.

In the Lowcountry, most heirs’ property is rural land owned by African Americans that has been passed down without a will and is therefore owned “in common” by the heirs.

Legal education and clearing titles are the steps that need to be taken to protect this ancestral land and to begin to realize its economic value. Without clear title, these families are at high risk for losing it.

Also, without clear title, they cannot obtain a loan or mortgage or access any public funding to improve their property.

For most of us, our property is our most valuable asset. Not so with heirs’ property. For generations, families have paid taxes on land they cannot use and could lose at any moment if an heir forces a sale in the courts.

Ironically, heirs’ property was originally considered mosquito-ridden, unlivable and undesirable because it was often located near marsh and tidal creeks.

Today it is some of the most sought-after land in the Lowcountry and much has been lost. The Center works with families who want to keep their land by providing the education and legal help they need and often cannot afford to resolve these complex issues.

With more than 27 percent of African Americans dwelling today in poverty compared with the national average of 15 percent, as quoted by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (Post and Courier, Aug. 25, Commentary page), can there be any doubt that resolving heirs’ property issues for the rural poor in the Lowcountry is an essential first step towards realizing their economic independence?

With clear title, that very same land increases in value and allows the owner to benefit from many resources previously denied them. The liability of their inherited land is suddenly an asset with measurable potential.

Since 2005, the center has cleared nearly 100 titles to land whose value increased 121 percent, equal to $3.5 million, as a result of that action. With stable land ownership, these families can take the next step to determine how best to use their land to increase income for their families.

Fortunately, for those with forested acreage, the Center now has the tools and expert relationships to help them do that through its new Sustainable Forestry Program funded by the U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities, Inc., the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Services, and the USDA Forest Service.

The forestry industry is a $17 billion industry in South Carolina. The center and its many expert partners are providing educational workshops on the range of marketable forest products that make up that industry, viable market connections and new forestry technologies for its sustained management.

It’s not just trees. Those forested acres are not just the “woods out back.” They are a potential commodity with real value if managed well.

The center wants heirs’ property owners to know that it can provide what is needed to bring an heirs’ family from unstable to stable landownership and to help them take their first steps toward economic independence through the sustainable use of their land.

What happens to heirs’ property happens to all of us.

Protecting heirs’ property and promoting its sustainable use in the Lowcountry helps preserve our rural landscape and the cultural heritage of these unique communities which enhance everyone’s quality of life.

Jennie L. Stephens, Ph.D.

Sam Rittenberg Boulevard

Charleston

Jennie L. Stephens is executive director of the Center for Heirs’ Property Preservation (www.heirsproperty.org).