BC Law Drinan Professor Thomas W. Mitchell, director of the school's Initiative on Land, Housing & Property Rights. (Photo by Caitlin Cunningham)

Grant for Initiative on Land, Housing & Property Rights

Will fund Boston College Law School project focused on estate planning to help close racial wealth gap

A two-year grant will aid an innovative Boston College Law School project designed to help close the racial wealth gap through community legal education about estate planning for Greater Boston Black and brown families seeking to purchase or retain a home.

BC Law’s Initiative on Land, Housing & Property Rights (ILHPR), along with its partners, the Massachusetts Affordable Housing Alliance (MAHA) and the Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School, were recipients of an inaugural, $350,000 impact grant from the Harvard & Legacy of Slavery Initiative’s Reparative Partnership Program (H&LS).

The award was one of seven conferred this spring by H&LS, established last year to address systemic inequities affecting descendant communities of formerly enslaved people, and stems from Harvard’s efforts to ameliorate its legacy of slavery through “meaningful, visible, and effective actions.”  

Under its project titled “A Homeownership Estate Planning Project to Close the Racial Wealth Gap,” ILHPR will partner with MAHA to build an estate planning module and curriculum for community legal education estate planning workshops, which the nonprofit housing organization will employ in its work with first-time, low-income homebuyers in both cities, and with some homeowners after they have purchased their properties. An estimated 1,100 people are expected to attend the workshops in each of the grant’s two years.

“We are very grateful for the impact grant, particularly given the robust number of excellent proposals H&LS received from around the country,” said ILHPR Director and founder Thomas W. Mitchell, the Robert F. Drinan, S.J. Endowed Chair at BC Law.  “We truly appreciate Harvard University and its H&LS Initiative for recognizing the potential impact of our proposal and for this generous funding, which we will utilize to help Boston and Cambridge descendant communities preserve their homes.”

"The lack of a will or other type of estate plan can pose substantial problems for disadvantaged people who want to pass down their wealth—including their homes and land—to the next generation."

Launched in 2022, ILHPR seeks to preserve and expand property rights for disadvantaged communities across the United States by producing research, devising legal reform and policy solutions, engaging in community outreach, training law students, and drawing on other complementary strategies.

“Compared to the percentage of white adults, 40 percent fewer Black and brown adults have a will or some other type of estate plan, with the will-making rate for Black and brown families barely hovering over 20 percent,” said Mitchell. “The lack of a will or other type of estate plan can pose substantial problems for disadvantaged people who want to pass down their wealth—including their homes and land—to the next generation.”

Mitchell noted that the loss of homes attributable to a lack of estate planning is significant, and contributes to the fact that Black families in the Greater Boston area have an average net worth of $8, compared to the $247,000 average net worth for white adults.

“Our goal is to put nonprofits in a better position to educate their clients about the importance of estate planning for future generations so that they can better preserve their homes and other assets,” he said.  “Additionally, 30 to 40 families who attend the community legal education workshops will have wills, simple trusts, or other types of estate plans drafted for them by one of the Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School clinics. We hope our project will have a significant impact and that it can then be replicated.”

A national expert on property issues facing disadvantaged families and communities, Mitchell has engaged in extensive law reform and policy work. He is the principal author of the widely adopted Uniform Partition of Heirs Property Act (UPHPA), designed to substantially enhance the ability of disadvantaged families to maintain property ownership and their generational wealth.

The UPHPA has been adopted by 24 states and other jurisdictions to date, making it one of the most successful uniform real estate property acts that the Uniform Law Commission has promulgated in the past 30 years. Mitchell also has helped draft some congressional bills, including recently introduced heirs’ property legislation.