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Weekday mornings on Michigan Radio, Doug Tribou hosts NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to news radio program in the country.

A family plan: Detroit homeowner's path to inheritance offers options for avoiding title issues

A red-brick, English Tudor-style house in Detroit with some large oak trees in the front lawn.
Courtesy of Omari Hall
Omari Hall inherited this home on a quiet street in one of Detroit’s Sherwood Forest neighborhood in 2021. Decades earlier, his parents took legal steps to ensure they would pass the home to Hall. A recent report found more than 5500 properties in Detroit where the legal owner has died without setting up a smooth transfer, leaving heirs in legal limbo.

Omari Hall’s house is a red-brick, English Tudor-style with large oak trees in the front lawn. It’s on a quiet street in one of Detroit’s most desirable neighborhoods. Hall became the owner a few years ago, but his parents took steps to make that happen more than 20 years ago, when he was a teenager.

"It's the greatest gift, other than life I mean, it's probably the next greatest gift they ever got me," Hall said.

Hall’s situation is one that experts would like to see happen more often.

"It's the greatest gift, other than life ... they ever got me."
Omari Hall on inheriting a house from his parents.

A recent report found 5,525 Detroit properties where the owners died without making legal arrangements for a smooth transfer of ownership. So-called "heirs' properties" can leave family members in legal limbo — unable to access equity for home repairs, or apply for property tax relief. The homes are also at risk of being auctioned at below market value.

It’s a common problem in the U.S. In Detroit and other cities heirs' properties can disproportionately affect Black families and hurt their ability to maintain and pass on generational wealth.

Different views of home ownership

We recently visited Hall in Detroit's Sherwood Forest neighborhood where he and his wife live with their dog, Cloud. Hall has considered the issue of generational wealth from a lot of perspectives. After he graduated from Oberlin College in 2009, Hall returned to Detroit and became a community organizer. Hall enjoyed the work, but the pay made it tough to make ends meet.

Omari Hall stands in his living room and, smiling, looks down at his dog, Cloud, who lies on an armchair. Family photos decorate the walls behind them both.
Caoilinn Goss
Michigan Public
Omari Hall – and his dog Cloud - at his home in Detroit’s Sherwood Forest neighborhood. Hall inherited the home from his parents, who added him to the deed when he was a teenager.

"So I drastically changed careers and ended up at Quicken Loans as a mortgage loan originator,” he said.

Hall quickly learned he was good at selling home loans and was making a good living, but he had concerns.

“I did not like the way in which I was sort of being held accountable to create debt for folks that couldn't necessarily always afford it," he said. "This is no slight to the mortgage industry. I think they do a good job. And I think that with the proper financial preparedness, it's a good option for a lot of people.”

After a few years at Quicken, Hall started thinking about jobs that would let him focus on helping other Black Detroiters. He says he feels lucky to have grown up in an especially stable neighborhood, something his two older sisters — and many of his other relatives — didn’t experience.

“I came into a different situation than they did. So my connection to Detroiters who have had to really struggle to survive is immediate.”

Since 2017, Hall has worked for GreenPath Financial Wellness, a national nonprofit that helps people stabilize their finances. They offer debt counseling, debt management, and other programs. In his early years with GreenPath, Hall was a credit and housing counselor and often had clients who were trying to stop a foreclosure.

"Some of the conversations that I can remember being a part of were around family properties or properties that they had inherited," he said. "That always adds a level of stress to the client, for sure, because there's feelings of connection. There's feelings of grief."

Memories and milestones

Hall can relate to the range of emotions that can come with family properties. Hanging on the wall in the living room where we sat and talked is a large photo of his mother and father on their wedding day. They bought the house in 1987.

"My parents moved into this house the summer before I was born. So I was born in December. And they moved in here in July or June or something. I remember them joking about me being like the housewarming present for the home."

Hall’s mother, Patricia Watson, was born in Arkansas, and came to Detroit in the 1970s as a young adult. For more than 20 years, she worked as an administrative assistant at Wayne State University and eventually earned her degree there.

A young Omari Hall with his parents, Patricia Watson and Perry Hall.
Courtesy of Omari Hall
A young Omari Hall with his parents, Patricia Watson and Perry Hall.

"My dad, on the other hand, had a similar but a little bit different story. My dad is from Detroit, from the Brewster projects, and came from legitimate poverty, urban poverty. And was just brilliant."

Hall’s father, Perry Hall, would go on to attend the University of Michigan, and earn a doctorate from Harvard University. He became a pioneering academic in the field of African-American studies, serving as a professor at Wayne State and the University of North Carolina. Omari Hall says owning a home in Detroit’s historic Sherwood Forest neighborhood was a big step for his parents.

“This neighborhood in the late '80s, early '90s became sort of a haven for the Black middle class, Black professionals. While my dad was technically speaking a professional, since he was a professor, ... it's not a doctor or a lawyer, right? So there was almost a little bit of a culture shock as we felt like, 'Do we even really belong in this neighborhood?’"

In his teenage years, Hall got another view of generational wealth. He attended Cranbrook Upper, a private high school north of Detroit.

"[Cranbrook] is a very prestigious, mostly white, institution. And the biggest culture shock wasn't the whiteness. It was the wealth. It was commonplace for kids to be gifted cars fully paid for. It was commonplace for kids, as they graduate from college or whatever, to just have a home lined up for them, or to have an expectation, like, 'I am going to inherit this lakefront property.'"

Later, when Hall got his degree from Oberlin, his parents marked another milestone, too.

"They celebrated paying off the mortgage at the same time as my graduation from college. And I remember them making a big deal about it. Of course, at the time, I was like, 'Whatever. I just graduated from college. I don't know what you all are excited about, but I'm excited about being an adult and like, being done with school,'" he said.

"But in retrospect — recognizing the importance of that moment — it was really special."

"[E]xactly the reason why my parents worked so hard is to provide for me some of the same advantages that white families have been providing for their children for generations."
Omari Hall

Protecting a family asset

But now, Hall sees another moment — one several years earlier — as possibly even more significant. When he was 13 or 14 years old, his parents told him they were adding him to the deed for the house.

"Obviously at that time, it went in one ear, out the other. I went to go play my video games or whatever I was doing. But I also remember growing up with the expectation that one day I might also own, maybe not this house, but a house."

Many Americans fail to have that conversation. A 2020 Gallup poll found fewer than half of Americans have a will. As Hall’s parents aged, they updated legal paperwork and had more family conversations — along with Hall’s older sisters — to make sure everyone understood and agreed.

Then in 2020, Hall’s father died unexpectedly. His mother, who suffered from a degenerative condition, would die just 18 months later. Hall was grieving, and feeling guilty about inheriting their house, the kind of opportunity many people in his life would never have.

"What rescued me from that moment of guilt was recognizing how normalized this is for white America. And then it dawned on me. This is exactly the reason why my parents worked so hard, is to provide for me some of the same advantages that white families have been providing for their children for generations. And in that moment, while I still recognized the feeling of like, 'Wow, this is a unique opportunity that I should be grateful for.' Guilty is not the word. Grateful is a better one."

Doug Tribou joined the Michigan Public staff as the host of Morning Edition in 2016. Doug first moved to Michigan in 2015 when he was awarded a Knight-Wallace journalism fellowship at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
Caoilinn Goss is the producer for Morning Edition. She started at Michigan Public during the summer of 2023.
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