[lg policy] Undoing the Dirty Deed: How ‘Whites Only’ Language from Restrictive Housing Covenants Remain on Deeds Across The Country

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at gmail.com
Mon Apr 23 12:02:04 EDT 2018

   - <http://atlantablackstar.com/category/race/>

Undoing the Dirty Deed: How ‘Whites Only’ Language from Restrictive Housing
Covenants Remain on Deeds Across The Country
D. Amari Jackson <http://atlantablackstar.com/author/damarij/>
April 22, 2018
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Michael Fagans Leon Grant holds one of the original “Whites Only” signs
that he helped get removed from Phoenix in the 1950s.

Unfortunately, well into the second decade of the 21st century,
discrimination in the housing market against African-Americans remains far
from rare. Although the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development
has reported that the most blatant forms of housing discrimination have
declined since 1977, it revealed that home seekers of color are currently
told about and shown fewer
<https://www.huduser.gov/portal/Publications/pdf/HUD-514_HDS2012.pdf> homes
and apartments than whites, a discriminatory practice known to “raise the
costs of housing search for minorities and restrict their housing options.”

Such discriminatory practices are hard to confront, given they are commonly
invisible to the client, often being enacted behind the scenes in corporate
boardrooms, real estate agencies or the minds of agents. This is why some
recent home buyers have been alarmed to find their deeds contain blunt,
racist and exclusionary language informing them that African-Americans are
not allowed to buy the homes they now own.

“No person other than one of the Caucasian race shall be permitted to
occupy any portion of any lot in said plat or any building thereon except a
domestic servant actually employed by a Caucasian occupant of said lot or
building,” reads one such restriction in Washington state.

“What I didn’t know was that this language was still in the deed,”
recounted Julie Fahey, a Democrat in the Oregon House of Representatives
from Eugene. In February, Fahey, who is white, successfully sponsored a
bill to facilitate the removal of offensive covenant language after
encountering such a deed upon buying her house in June 2015. Though well
aware of America’s long and ongoing history of racial and ethnic
discrimination in housing policy, the lawmaker admitted to being
“surprised” by the blunt nature of the covenant. The legislation, recently
signed into law by the governor, addresses the costs and difficulties of
removing such language.

“The legislation simplifies the process for getting the language taken out
of the deeds of home,” explained Fahey, noting the cumbersome and costly
nature of the removal process and how it requires the notification of all
owners, lienholders and those with easements by “certified proof of
service, which can be quite expensive.” The biggest change that we made in
the law, continued Fahey, was “instead of requiring certified proof of
service, you can do certified mail and sign an affidavit saying that you
made a good faith effort to contact the people that have an interest in the
property so it reduces both the administrative requirements and the
associated costs.”

Though such racist covenants were outlawed by the Fair Housing Act of 1968,
the language has remained on deeds across the country ostensibly due to the
legal complexities and costs involved in removing them. Along with Oregon
and Washington, whites-only covenants remain on property deeds in
California, Missouri, South Carolina and numerous other states. In 2009,
the California Legislature passed a bill to have racist covenants purged
upon the purchase of a property, only to have the legislation vetoed by
then-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger because of associated costs and the
fact that residents can request to have the covenants removed.

While Fahey was initially taken aback by the racist language on her own
deed, the ongoing existence of housing inequities in her state and beyond
comes as no surprise. “It is very clear that there are disparities in the
level of home ownership in Oregon and across the country by race,” stressed
Fahey, reporting that recent legislative session data showed that “over 50
percent of white households in Portland own homes while it’s closer to 28
percent for black households.” Such gaps, she said, are why another
recently passed bill <https://gov.oregonlive.com/bill/2018/HB4010/>, House
Bill 4010, tracks racial disparities in homeownership in the state while
establishing a task force to determine “what kind of specific policy
solutions the legislature should be advocating for to try to remedy some of
these disparities.”

In America, such inequities are deeply rooted. Racially restrictive
covenants first came about as a response to the Great Migration of
African-Americans from the South to Northern cities, and the 1917 court
ruling Buchanan v. Warley, which declared municipal racial zoning
unconstitutional. Since the ruling did not cover private agreements,
restrictive covenants evolved as a way to perpetuate residential
segregation as property owners, real estate boards and neighborhood
associations conspired to only sell to white people. Such covenants
proliferated upon the Corrigan v. Buckley decision of 1926, when the U.S.
Supreme Court decision validated their usage.

In 1933, during the Great Depression, the federal government sought to
remedy a national housing shortage through its Home Owners’ Loan
Corporation, a New Deal institution that increased both accessible housing
and its accompanying segregation. Suburban communities were mass-produced
for middle-class and lower-middle-class white families while
African-Americans were herded into urban housing projects. The
establishment of the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) in 1934 further
exacerbated this segregation by enabling redlining, or the refusal to
insure mortgages in or about African-American communities. Simultaneously,
the FHA — contending without evidence or merit that integrated housing
would decrease the property values of whites — subsidized suburban
developments across the country that required that none of the homes be
sold to Black buyers.

“It was the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation, not a private trade association,
that pioneered the practice of redlining, selectively granting loans and
insisting that any property it insured be covered by a restrictive
covenant,” wrote Ta-Nehisi Coates, in his classic June 2014 article on
reparations in The Atlantic. “Millions of dollars flowed from tax coffers
into segregated white neighborhoods.”

“The restrictive covenant became so fashionable that in 1937 a leading
magazine of nationwide circulation awarded 10 communities a ‘shield of
honor’ for an umbrella of restrictions against ‘the wrong kind of people,”
revealed <http://www.law.umaryland.edu/marshall/usccr/documents/cr11042.pdf>
the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in February 1973. “By 1940, according
to a magazine article, 80 percent of both Chicago and Los Angeles carried
restrictive covenants barring black families.”

Given middle-class families, particularly in the 20th century, groomed
their wealth from the equity in their homes, the impact of such
federally-subsidized discrimination is well represented by the ongoing
disparities of today. African-American incomes on average, recently
reported NPR, are “about 60 percent of average white incomes. But
African-American wealth is about 5 percent of white wealth.… So this
enormous difference between a 60 percent income ratio and a 5 percent
wealth ratio is almost entirely attributable to federal housing policy
implemented through the 20th century.”

“Part of why I brought this bill forward was so that it could be a
teachable moment,” offered Fahey, noting “I really wanted to further the
process of educating the public and the legislature about our history of
discrimination in housing policy in Oregon and also around the country.”
Consistent with her intentions, Fahey actually read the racist covenant
language on the floor of the Oregon House. “That was part of what the goal
of the bill was, to make sure that people understood our history so that
when this task force comes back with policy recommendations for change,
people are aware of it and potentially more willing to listen to and
support those recommendations.”

For Fahey, the end goal more than justifies the means.

“I know that this legislation, in and of itself, does not do anything to
remedy the fact that we discriminated against people of color for decades
in this country from a housing perspective, and that discrimination still
reverberates today,” acknowledged Fahey. “But I am hopeful it helps to lay
the groundwork for actually making some policy changes that will fix it.”


 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com

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