What’s a GINI? And what is an ‘Heirs Property?’

by Harvey Ward, Gainesville City Commissioner, District II

Your City of Gainesville government has been busy working on programs likely to have a tremendous impact on folks often in need of city services. Two programs with the potential to be most helpful in our city this spring are the GINI (Gainesville Immigrant Neighbor Inclusion Initiative) and the Heirs Property program. 

The Gainesville Immigrant Neighbor Inclusion Initiative

The GINI initiative starts from the basic assumption that no matter who you are, where you came from or why you came to Gainesville, if you’re here you deserve access to the sweeping array of services our city offers whether you are a fluent user of English or not. Admittedly, that sounds easier than it is. The initiative’s beginnings are rooted in a tragic incident involving a GPD response to a domestic dispute in 2018 that resulted in federal immigration action. 

Local activists, city staff and commissioners have worked since then to create a program to make public safety services as well as all the other services we offer accessible from a language perspective. On March 17, the city commission voted to move forward with a plan that will create a Community Liaison position to direct the program, and for the person hired for that position to work on identifying the most-used city documents for translation into the most-needed languages other than English as well as seeing that signage on city buildings and areas used by the public is reproduced in a bilingual format. They will work closely with the Rural Women’s Health Project, who have been doing this work for years, and bring the essence of what they have been doing into city government. Clearly there is plenty of work to be done in many ways. This is where we can make an honest beginning.

The initiative will be phased in over a period of years, with the intent of doing it properly, rather than just creating an office and calling the work done. Watch for more news about GINI, as it should be an effective program and one that our other local governments can use as a model.

The Heirs Property program

The Heirs Property program is a service we are piloting through the Gainesville Community Reinvestment Area (GCRA) to help families build neighborhood stability within the GCRA program area by helping them gain clear title to their homes. “Heirs Property” is a legal concept that results when a property owner dies without a will or other estate plan. 

While the family may understand and agree which relative “inherits” the home, the state doesn’t see it that way unless it is spelled out in a will. The title ends up being shared by all living heirs, and will then be passed down in a like manner every generation until the number of fractional owners becomes entirely unwieldy. 

This complicated fractional ownership often leads to a situation where the property is uninsurable, unable to be borrowed against and difficult to improve or repair. It even affects payment of property taxes, as since the person living in the property does not have clear title, they cannot “homestead” it, resulting in significantly higher taxes. Eventually the families involved often give up and abandon the property entirely.

Heirs Property is a vestige of Jim Crow, as it primarily affects Black families who were often denied access to or at least discouraged from participating in the legal system. Many times, the families who are affected by these issues are very well aware of the problem, but the only way to untangle the legal difficulties is by spending thousands of dollars they don’t have on legal fees.

This program seeks to directly address the issues, family by family, by having the City of Gainesville pay the legal bills. The city has awarded a one-year competitive grant of $250,000 to Three Rivers Legal Services. The grant is renewable under the pilot program for a second year. Three Rivers will work with GCRA staff to qualify owners, and then work with those owners to complete the legal work necessary to clear the titles to their homes. Once the title is cleared, those families can enjoy all the benefits of home ownership—and generational wealth-building—that many of us take for granted. The community wins because these families are then more likely to stay in their homes, which helps keep our neighborhoods strong.

There are more innovative and helpful programs the city is working on than there is space to write about them. For now, please watch this space for more information about these and other programs in the works. 

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