An 11 Year Quest to Save a Home

“I had to fight to get the home in my name…” – Vivian Dunlap
Vivian Dunlap has deep roots in West Baltimore. Vivian lived in her family home from the age of six through her 20s. The family home was eventually passed on to Vivian’s sister and brother-in-law in 1980.  Even after moving out of the home, Vivian’s roots remained and after her brother-in-law’s passing in 1996, Vivian returned home in 2004 to take care of her sister, Alice. 

After Vivian’s brother-in-law passed away, the property automatically passed to Alice. When Alice passed away in 2008, Vivian immediately began taking the necessary steps to ensure that their home would stay in their family, as it had for several decades. Unfortunately, there was no way to automatically transfer the home after Alice’s passing, and Vivian had to open an estate to transfer the property. She learned that this was a process that would cost her several hundred dollars and require several trips to the Register of Wills downtown to complete confusing paperwork.  Nonetheless, it was a priority to save the family home and Vivian opened the estate that same year and was named as personal representative.  She now could begin the task of recording a new deed and transferring the home into her name, but every stage of this process created more obstacles.

To record the new deed, the final step in securing the family home, there needs to be a balance of zero dollars for the property’s taxes and water bills. Without her name on the deed, Vivian could not access any water bill reduction programs, tax credits, or repair programs and in 2015, the pipes at the home burst.  The water bill became too expensive and a delinquent account started to accrue.  Vivian also had to contend with a growing mold issue. Vivian had the water at the property turned off so that bill would not grow any larger.  At this point she had to make the hard decision to leave her home and move in with her son.  But she didn’t give up on her dream to save her family’s home.

In 2017, Vivian came to MVLS for assistance with the water bill and transferring the property into her name.  Vivian was placed with a volunteer attorney who discovered that the water bill had ballooned to $2,400.  Even worse, due to the unpaid water bill, the property had been sold at tax sale in May 2017.  Now Vivian would have to redeem the property so that it would not be lost to the family forever.  With the assistance of her brother, Vivian was able to redeem the property. But she still had more to do to save her home.

Vivian then began work on paying down the water bill.  She contacted the Department of Public Works (DPW) and was able to be placed on a repayment plan. In 2019, after repaying the arrears in full, Vivian reached back out to MVLS, ready to record the new deed.  By this point, the mold had rendered the property completely uninhabitable, and Vivian was now residing with her brother in Prince George’s County.   MVLS’s Tangled Title Attorney began assisting Vivian.  As they worked together to finally be able to record a new deed, there was a nationwide shutdown in response to COVID, and the deed recordation process was significantly delayed. After having to wait many months, her attorney was able to petition the Register of Wills to reopen Alice’s estate, and Vivian was finally able to record her deed with Baltimore City Land Records in April 2021.  After 11 years of not giving up, Vivian finally succeeded in saving her home.

In the face of numerous obstacles, from unbelievably high water bills, life-threatening mold problems, several moves, and a worldwide pandemic, Vivian remained steadfast and persistent in ensuring that her roots remained in West Baltimore.  Vivian, with help from her family, fixed the mold problem and plans to return home in the next few months. Ultimately, Vivian wants to leave the home to her daughter – keeping the home in the family for generations to come. Vivian’s name is now on the deed to her home, and she has kept her family’s legacy in her community.

Speaking on the journey that she has completed to reclaim her home, Vivian says, “I had been living in the home since I was seven years old. Once I got married, I moved out but I came back to the home in 2004 to take care of my sister. My sister and brother-in-law considered me to be their child and the plan was always for the home to pass to me. After my sister’s death, I had to fight to get the home in my name. I had to make several payments to other family members and at the end, I had no money or anywhere else to go, so I didn’t have a choice but to get the home in my name. It has been great working with MVLS because it has always meant a lot to me to keep the home – I grew up there and I want to pass the home to my daughter.”

Vivian’s story highlights the importance of protecting homeownership in communities of color.  As part of the work in addressing the racial wealth gap and advocating for racial equity, MVLS, in its Advance Planning Program and My Home, My Deed, My Legacy Program, focuses on estate planning, including life estate deeds, so that Marylanders can avoid the barriers that Vivian faced in her quest to save her home.