Enhancing Equity within Land Records

We are back to our industry-focused equity blog series. In our last blog we honored Earth Day by learning how environment and conservation professionals are leveraging geographic information system (GIS) tools to ensure the industry remains equitable when conducting business. In this blog, I am happy to highlight how equity is enhanced within land records.

When I think of a land record professional, I immediately think of the county assessor’s office and their GIS staff. The tireless work of updating data point after data point highlights the importance of data management and while tedious, it is vitally important to the functioning of our local governments.

Now, when I think of land records and equity I immediately think of redlining and racial covenants.

According to The Color of Law, in the 1930s, “The Home Owners’ Loan Corporation created color-coded maps of every metropolitan area in the nation, with the safest neighborhoods colored green and the riskiest colored red. A neighborhood earned a red color if African Americans lived in it, even if it was a solid middle-class neighborhood of single-family homes.” These maps are known as redlined neighborhoods.

Racial covenants are clauses that were inserted into property deeds to prevent people who were not White from buying or occupying land.

The legacy of racism in redlining practices and racial covenants is still felt today. While I have worked with redlining maps as a member of the Redistricting Partner team, I have also felt this impact on a personal level. The house I currently live in was built in 1949 in a racial covenant neighborhood. The house has wide streets, paved sidewalks, most of the homes have 50ft plus tall trees, our home has hardwood floors, a milk slot in the kitchen, a basement which is unusual for California homes and a beautiful bay window. It is a neighborhood everyone deserves to live in. However, when the home was built, my partner and I would not have been able to occupy let alone purchase the property. While the home was built and the restrictions to sell to Latinos have been lifted, on our first day at the house police officers approached our back gate and informed us they were looking for a Latino couple that had been reported breaking into homes. I then informed the officer that my partner had just purchased the house and they were on his property. My partner is the first POC to own this property and although a growing number of POC homeowners are arriving in the neighborhood we cannot ignore a deeply entrenched racist policy that has impacted communities across the country. However, we can address the policy, require state and local governments to be more transparent, and use the maps to make more equitable decisions moving forward.

Linda Foster, the Esri Global Land Records/Cadastre Manager, outlines ways the industry has incorporated equity, transparency, and data accuracy into their work. Let’s dive in and learn more from Linda.

Can you give us a brief description of what a Land Records professional does, what types of work they focus on and how their work impacts our lives?

Land Records can be defined as any official records for managing land ownership, use, value, and associated resources.  It’s a broad field, when thinking of land records professionals we include county clerks, recorders and registers of deeds, assessors, appraisers, land surveyors, attorneys, title abstractors, and others.  There are many types of land records, but they commonly refer to deeds, mortgages, plats, surveys, parcel maps, and property characteristics used for legal purposes such as conveyances, valuation, and real estate taxes.

Secure land rights and therefore secure land records are the foundation of social and economic well-being.  The land records system allows for publicly describing an individual’s rights, restrictions, and responsibilities in land which enables access to the capital in land.  This in turn empowers secure lending with mortgages and the ability to sell and heir, resulting in a strong economic foundation. 

Simply put, land records professionals manage our land records, measure our land, and value our property for fair and equitable taxation. They do this with sophisticated land records management systems (LRMS), computer-assisted mass appraisal systems (CAMA), and geographic information systems (GIS). Any time land is conveyed or mortgaged, the recorder uses an LRMS to record, manage, index, archive, and publish the associated land records.  The assessor manages up to 150 property characteristics (size, number of bathrooms, condition, etc.) on each property and uses complex mathematical/statistical tools to equitably value property.  The results, including parcels, are mapped and shared with the public for transparency and to enable other uses of land data.  Land records professionals are key to a well-functioning civil society.

Can you talk us through a brief history of land records professional’s work and how their work has evolved over the years? Can you touch on redlining, formulaic models and the overarching goal to keep the data current?

Our land system in the U.S. is primarily a deeds system where conveyance documents are indexed by grantor/grantee (seller/buyer).  An index of these records is published for locating records and for public inspection.  With LRMS, eRecording and other technologies, the recording system has gained efficiency with technology but is primarily the same legal system since the 1850s.

Valuation and lending practices have evolved over time.  When computing was manual and our understanding of the real estate market was immature, we used simple formulas to calculate value.  Today with powerful computing systems we use complex regression analysis and statistical tests which deliver very good valuations.  The quality of values will continue to evolve with technology increasing our ability to analyze and predict values more accurately.  With new technologies such as easy-to-use apps, how we publish this data and analysis with maps for public inspection and use will continue to evolve as well.

In the past, there were many discriminatory practices in land records, real estate, and the mortgage industry.  For example, it could be written into a deed that someone of a certain race, ethnic background, or religious belief could not own or occupy a particular property (racial covenants), which you have seen first-hand, Sophia.  Given the open nature and archive of land records, these are still part of the public record, albeit unenforceable. 

Another well-known discriminatory process, redlining, negatively impacted many, and we still see the impact on neighborhoods today.  Although the term ‘redlining’ is used for many historic race-based discriminations, it originated from the 1930’s lending programs in the New Deal.  These were government-insured mortgages intended to help fend off the foreclosures resulting from the Great Depression.  As Sophia mentioned, the 1938 Home Owner’s Loan Corporation created color-coded maps and rated neighborhoods as ‘hazardous and declining’ and ‘best and desirable’.  These maps were used to determine who would get loans and later where the Veteran Administration (VA) and Federal Housing Administration (FHA) would invest in home loans.  Although not specifically written, these neighborhood classifications were highly race-based.  It wasn’t until the Fair Housing Act of 1968 under President Johnson that these practices were made illegal. While much has been learned in the decades since, impacts from these lending policies are still visible today.

What are some challenges for assessors and appraisers regarding equity and non-biased valuations?

Real estate valuation (or assessment) for taxation is based on mathematical models.  Valuation models use property characteristics such as condition, size, number of bathrooms, and construction type. In many jurisdictions, over one hundred characteristics are collected and managed.  For residential properties, these models use homes with similar characteristics that have recently sold and sophisticated statistics to determine an assessed value. 

British statistician George Box famously said, “All models are wrong, but some are useful,” meaning that it is difficult to precisely characterize everything.  These models are subject to error and bias, but importantly, the data used in valuation models are often out-of-date and incomplete.  One of the challenges for assessors is to maintain current, accurate property characteristics so the models yield the most accurate results. 

It is also important to remember that although there can be bias in the pricing structures of the local real estate market, that is separate from bias in the assessments for taxation purposes.  One challenge for assessors is not getting distracted by trying to correct the legacy of bias and discrimination in the housing markets and tax policies and staying focused purely on assessment performance. 

Are there standards of practice or regulations that help ensure fair and equitable real estate assessment?

Each state is different and maintains its own laws and regulations.  Oversight of local assessment jurisdictions is usually done by the state department of revenue. These oversight agencies provide training, rule interpretation, and review all assessments against current sales to ensure compliance.

Professional organizations, such as the International Association of Assessing Officers (IAAO), also provide rigorous training, certification, and standards to promote fair and equitable valuation practices across the industry.

A recent effort to combat bias in home appraisals (how a home is valued by a professional appraiser, typically for mortgage consideration) was also announced by President Biden on June 1, 2021.  The interagency initiative has become the Task Force on Property Appraisal and Valuation Equity (PAVE) and is made up of thirteen federal agencies, including the White House Domestic Policy Council.  Given two directives, the Task Force is “evaluating the causes, extent, and consequences of appraisal bias and establishing a transformative set of recommendations for rooting out racial and ethnic bias in home valuations.”

Are geographic information systems (GIS) used in the valuation process?

Assessors strive to deliver fair, equitable, and uniform values.  GIS plays a key role in the valuation process by way of transparency.  Not just transparency in the resultant valuation, but transparency in the process, models, and data used.  Many jurisdictions openly share this data with the public so additional analysis can be done, and the data can be used for other purposes.  Note that the parcel map is the most requested data in local government.

We have all heard “location, location, location” when discussing the important parameters in real estate value.  GIS technology leverages location for analysis.  GIS has hundreds of spatial analytical tools to perform statistical analysis for determining value.

GIS is also used by several state departments of revenue to help with modernizing equitable oversight operations including South Dakota, New Mexico, Vermont, and New Hampshire. GIS delivers maps and analyses that detail the equalization process and how state revenues are distributed to local jurisdictions.  They are setting a great example of how to leverage GIS for equity in land records.  GIS is paramount to understanding equity in state disbursements. 

Are data besides the property characteristics used in valuation such as census or demographic information?

Assessors do not use demographic or census information when valuing real estate. However, these data sets are valuable for understanding outcomes to help understand if there is any inherent bias in the data and analyze the outcomes.  Mapping and visualizing this data help assessors understand if their models are performing well and if the data used needs to be evaluated for currency and accuracy.

Can you expand on transparency and how GIS helps?

Transparency and public engagement are evolving with technology.  In the past, open access to paper records and paper maps was considered a transparent assessor’s office.  Now, complete information regarding all property characteristics, recent sales information, and maps, all available on mobile devices is expected.  Taxpayers want instantaneous access to current, accurate data at all times.

Maps help communicate complex information.  Property taxes are linked to a parcel and parcel maps are the logical format to deliver information.  Information about values, trends, and year-to-year changes are all easily communicated with maps, and with GIS, making and sharing maps online and on apps is easy.

It is challenging to deliver all the data and information assessors produce in a way that is easy to understand.  Esri developed the Equitable Property Value (EPV) solution to assist with this.  It is designed to share authoritative property information, inform taxpayers, and collect feedback.  It provides 24/7 access to answer common property and tax distribution questions to increase public trust and streamline the assessment appeals process. This approach helps stakeholders make well-informed property and development decisions. It delivers a set of capabilities that helps communicate parcel, property sales, and floodplain information as well as solicit assessment appeals from property owners to improve customer service and promote fair, equitable, and uniform property values.

This transparency is critical to ensuring equitable assessment.

Enhancing Equity within Land Records

Through Linda’s responses we learned that despite historical prejudices within land records equity is achieved today within the industry. GIS technology allows for these professionals to increase transparency and allow the public real-time access to land assessments ensuring that potential biases do not remain unnoticed. I would like to encourage you all to visit Esri’s equity strategic plan to learn how you can get started today, in building a more equitable world.

About the authors

Sophia Garcia is Esri’s Lead Equity and Civic Nonprofits lead. Her work at the Dolores Huerta Foundation (DHF), a social justice nonprofit in California’s Central Valley, laid the groundwork for institutionalizing Esri’s Equity and mapping work. At DHF, Sophia worked with community organizations across California to pass legislation for more fair and equitable redistricting codified in AB 849 the Fair Maps Act. Sophia subsequently worked as a consultant with over one-hundred municipalities, including five of California’s 10 largest cities, to implement the Fair Maps Act. Sophia’s GIS career has been focused on participatory community GIS and implementing GIS with an equity lens. She is excited to continue working with users to understand and apply GIS and geospatial thinking to equity issues.

Linda Foster oversees Esri’s worldwide strategic vision for land records, cadastre, surveying, and land administration. Long recognized as a champion for bringing GIS and geospatial technologies to unique and challenging situations, she has spent much of her career improving the outcomes of timeless, lands-based challenges. A leader in professional organizations, she is currently serving on the National Society of Professional Surveyors (NSPS) board of directors, has served as a mentor for the URISA mentorship network, and led statewide design of low distortion projections for inclusion in the National Geodetic Survey’s (NGS) upcoming datum updates. Foster is a registered professional land surveyor and certified GIS professional. She also holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Geological Engineering, and a Master’s degree in GIS from Penn State University.

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