Wells Fargo Foundation and Legal Aid NC announce expansion of housing-justice services in Eastern NC

RALEIGH – Thanks to a two-year, $450,000 grant from the Wells Fargo Foundation, Legal Aid of North Carolina is expanding its housing-justice services to homeowners and renters in Eastern North Carolina.

The grant will fund a two-pronged effort targeting separate causes of housing instability among low-income residents of the region: heir property, which refers to homes and land passed down outside of the courts, an arrangement seen predominantly in Black, rural communities; and eviction, an endemic problem in low-income communities everywhere.

Of the total grant funds, $300,000 is being used to launch the Heir Property Pro Bono Project, a new effort at Legal Aid NC to involve the private real-estate bar in heir property work throughout Eastern North Carolina. Legal Aid’s Raleigh and Wilson field offices will use the remaining $150,000 to expand eviction-defense work in the City of Raleigh and Edgecombe and Nash counties.

“At Wells Fargo, we believe everyone should have access to a quality, affordable home and opportunities for creating generational wealth through homeownership,” said Suzie Koonce, Senior Philanthropy and Community Impact Specialist at Wells Fargo. “We are proud to provide this important grant to Legal Aid NC to help more families in Raleigh and across Eastern North Carolina access the legal services they need to stay in their homes and address systems that often lead to loss of property, land, and wealth for families of color.”

Heir Property Pro Bono Project

The Heir Property Pro Bono Project will partner with the North Carolina Bar Association’s Real Property Section, with support from the North Carolina Bar Foundation, to recruit North Carolina real estate lawyers and paralegals to help heir property owners establish clear title to their home and land, thereby preserving generational wealth in families, and safe and affordable housing in low-income communities. Heir property arrangements are most common in Black, rural communities in Eastern North Carolina and some mountain communities in Western North Carolina.

Heir property is a home or land that is inherited informally, often from a family member who passed away without leaving a will. Heir property typically involves several people who have inherited shares in the same property, an arrangement that makes it difficult to use the property as collateral for a loan, sell the property, or enroll in recovery-assistance programs following a natural disaster.

As a result, families lose the ability to rely on heir property as a practical financial asset, impeding their ability to secure loans and financial assistance to keep the property in a habitable condition. This can lead to the property’s abandonment, which destabilizes communities by lowering surrounding property values, decreasing local tax revenue and creating safety hazards. [1]

“Whenever we stabilize and formalize home ownership, we help preserve the stock of affordable, sanitary housing,” said Lesley Albritton, Chief of Staff for Legal Aid NC and former project director and managing attorney of the firm’s Disaster Relief Project, which often encounters heir property issues in their work. “This grant enables Legal Aid NC to expand our work facilitating long-term disaster recovery, increasing and maintaining habitable and affordable housing across the state, and supporting equitable resiliency.”

Through this project, Legal Aid NC plans to create a partnership between its attorneys and members of the private bar to better help low-income North Carolinians—particularly Black residents of rural communities—resolve complex heir property cases.

Erin Haygood, Director of Pro Bono Programs at Legal Aid NC, said, “Pro bono attorneys are vital partners in so much of what we do at Legal Aid of North Carolina. Through this project, we will integrate them into our heir property work for the first time. Combining the talents of our attorneys and members of the real-estate bar will allow us to maximize the efficacy of our advocacy to low-income homeowners in North Carolina.”

Attorneys and paralegals with real-estate experience can sign up for our Heir Property Pro Bono Project at bit.ly/lanchppbp.

Legal Aid NC’s Heir Property Pro Bono Project owes a debt of gratitude to the Land Loss Prevention Project, a Durham-based nonprofit that pioneered heir property work in the early 80’s. Since then, it has worked tirelessly to raise awareness of the issue in North Carolina’s legal community and beyond. Among its practice areas, the Land Loss Prevention Project provides direct legal services to heir property owners statewide. The work of our project would not be possible without their legacy of committed service. Attorneys and paralegals trained by our project will be invited to also provide pro bono service through the Land Loss Prevention Project and Pisgah Legal Services, a civil legal aid organization serving Western North Carolina, as part of a pro bono referral network managed by the North Carolina Bar Association’s Real Property Section and the North Carolina Bar Foundation.

Eviction defense

Funded by $150,000 from Wells Fargo, Legal Aid NC will expand its eviction defense work in the City of Raleigh, which is served by our Raleigh field office, and in Edgecombe and Nash counties, which are served by our Wilson office.

“Keeping families in their homes by preventing eviction has always been one of our top priorities at Legal Aid NC,” said Pamela Thombs, managing attorney of our Raleigh office, “but there are never enough resources to help everyone who needs us. This funding will allow us to provide life-changing legal help to families who would otherwise have nowhere to turn.”

Ayanda Meachem, managing attorney of our Wilson office, said, “Eviction doesn’t discriminate. Our clients live in urban and rural communities, in apartment complexes and mobile home parks, and eviction is a problem everywhere. This funding will help us serve more families confronting eviction and homelessness, wherever they are.”

North Carolinians facing eviction can visit legalaidnc.org/housing to find free self-help and know-your-rights resources, or apply for help by calling our statewide Helpline at 1-866-219-LANC (5262) or applying online at legalaidnc.org/apply.

[1] To learn more about heir property, read Disasters Do Discriminate: Black Land Tenure and Disaster Relief Programs, Journal of Affordable Housing and Community Development Law, by Lesley Albritton, director of Legal Aid of North Carolina’s Disaster Relief Project, and Jesse Williams, former Legal Aid NC staff attorney and current law fellow at Wake Forest Law’s Environmental Law and Policy Clinic.