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The Legacy Of Racist Housing Covenants And What's Being Done To Eradicate Them In Home Deeds

Years ago, racial covenants were legal. Despite being illegal now, they can remain on the books for a number of reasons. (Getty Images)
Years ago, racial covenants were legal. Despite being illegal now, they can remain on the books for a number of reasons. (Getty Images)

Several states are moving to make it easier for homeowners to strike language in the fine print of home deeds that restricts sales to people of color.

Racially restrictive covenants — legal contracts embedded in property deeds — have long been unenforceable and have left a legacy of housing discrimination.

The Supreme Court’s 1948 ruling in Shelley v. Kraemer didn’t make discriminatory covenants illegal but rather “unconstitutional to enforce,” New York University law professor Richard R. W. Brooks says. He’s co-author of the book “Saving the Neighborhood: Racially Restrictive Covenants, Law, and Social Norms.”

While title companies complied after the SCOTUS ruling, the covenants had prolonged economic and segregative impacts on neighborhoods up through the ‘70s. For example, Brooks says banks could deny Black families housing loans if banks saw a covenant on a home deed out of fear of a white flight from the neighborhood.

Even if the covenants couldn’t be enforced, the language was visible to banks and other powerful entities, he says. It’s not implausible, he says, that these negative impacts have continued until today.

There are three different strategies happening across the U.S. to delete racially restrictive covenants from deeds. One is concealment — title companies stop reporting covenants, Brooks says. Another is to contextualize the covenant but make it clear they are no longer enforceable. The third way is by redacting the covenant through digitizing house deeds and cutting the language out.

Kiarra Zackery, lead organizer of Just Deeds, is among those fighting to remove discriminatory covenants — including one in her father Ulysses Zackery’s housing deed in south Minneapolis.

Ulysses Zackery says he didn’t know his deed had discriminatory language in it until his daughter pointed it out. No one alerted him when he purchased the house two decades ago.

“When I went to close on the house, I had no idea that that covenant was in place,” he says.

He was shocked at first, he says, but the shock faded considering “I was the only person that looked like me on the block 20 years ago.”

His daughter grew up in this neighborhood — an area placed between two lakes and praised for its good schools and walkability. But it was also a neighborhood that marketed and advertised its covenants in the ‘20s and ‘30s, Kiarra Zackery says.

She doesn’t recall the exact language, but the covenant in Ulysses Zackery’s housing deed essentially declares “no one outside of European descent or outside of the white race could buy, rent or occupy the land,” she says.

In 2019, Minnesota passed legislation that discharged covenants by adding language to a deed that states the covenant is no longer enforceable — the second strategy that law professor Brooks explained.

However, in Hennepin County where Minneapolis is, property owners still need to file to have that added — a difficult process considering one would need a lawyer to access the filing system, she says.

Kiarra Zackery and the team at Just Deeds have organized an accessible system. Through cities and volunteer lawyers, she says, Just Deeds set up a simple process for homeowners to get covenants off the books. The group worked with Hennepin County to eliminate fees associated with filing, she says.

Lingering effects of racist language embedded in property deeds still exists, Ulysses Zackerysays. It’s taken many years since he first moved in to have one of his neighbors accept him in the community.

“Even though I’m not saying that he had a bias against me, I just kind of felt like, you know, for several years, I wasn’t looked at as an equal,” he says.

For Kiarra Zackery, the covenant explains why for years, no one on her dad’s block has looked like her family.

“Historically, it starts to put into context, well, why is it that all of the folks that look like us or most of the people that look like us, most of the other Black people, they live in specific neighborhoods?” she says. “For me, it kind of frames my upbringing and my childhood in a different way.”


Lynn Menegon produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Chris BentleySerena McMahon adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.