Monday, April 28, 2008

Another way the law fails rural folk

A story on NPR this afternoon told of Alice Cousins, a New Orleans resident who has not been able to receive federal aid to repair her home post-Katrina because she does not hold title to the property. Because her parents left no will, Cousins and a number of relatives own shares in the property, though many are long-gone from New Orleans and have contributed nothing to its upkeep over the years.

In the midst of untangling this problem and the practice that created it, the reporter tells us that the informal practice of transferring land is a rural one, whereby a farmer might just say, for example, which son got what part of his farm upon his death. This practice was also sometimes followed in cities, especially among low-income families, as in the case of the Cousins family. One reason for the informal practice: title transfer can be expensive, as much as $5000 for even a modest home.

The legal expert interviewed, Malcolm Meyer, noted that the practice often deprived rural folks (as well as other folks, like Ms. Cousins) an important benefit of land ownership: the opportunity to use the property as collateral. Meyer is now working with Louisiana Appleseed, a legal aid non-profit, to get the legislature to consider simplifying and reducing the cost of title transfer. Such a change would benefit not only those like Ms. Cousins, but presumably also lots of rural Louisianans.

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