Millions of homeowners across the country may be surprised to learn that the deeds to their homes contain language such as this:
“No person or persons of Asiatic, African or Negro blood, lineage, or extraction shall be permitted to occupy a portion of said property.”
“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.”
“This property shall not be resold, leased, rented or occupied except to or by persons of the Aryan race.”
These are examples of restrictive racial covenants that became virtually ubiquitous in the early 20th century and prevented people of color — and, in some cases, people of Southern or Eastern European ancestry — from buying, renting or occupying certain properties or developments.
Now, Seattle-based brokerage Windermere Real Estate has produced documents to help its agents work with their clients to have the racist language stricken from their property title.
In the Seattle area alone, the University of Washington has found more than 500 deeds and covenants containing racial restrictions that apply to at least 20,000 properties in scores of neighborhoods in Seattle and nearby suburbs.
“While the restrictions are illegal and unenforceable, they still exist, and we heard from our agents that they wanted something from Windermere that showed our commitment to striking this kind of offensive language,” Windermere spokesperson Shelley Rossi told Inman via email.
“I was recently contacted by one of our agents whose client wanted the language stricken prior to putting their home on the market and were very thankful that we could help,” she added. “That’s a great example of how these documents and the process can work.”
In a video, a Windermere agent details how he would use the documents in a listing presentation.
Windermere has more than 300 offices and 6,500 agents in 10 U.S. states and Mexico. As part of its diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, the brokerage has created educational materials detailing how homeowners can remove racially restrictive language from their chain of title in seven of the 10 states the brokerage operates in where there is a process in place to remove the language: Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon and Washington.
In the other three states — Hawaii, Montana and Utah — the brokerage says there is currently no process for such removal and there is no pending legislation to address the issue.
“This is just the beginning of what we know will be a long-term journey of awareness and accountability,” Rossi said. “We are focused and determined to do our part to address discrimination, racism, and inequity within Windermere and the real estate industry. Our efforts stem from the recognition that there is a long history of housing discrimination in the United States and that the inequality in homeownership has deepened the racial divide. Through our work we hope to play a role in finding ways to correct these inequalities.”
In a blog post, Windermere details some of the history of racial covenants, including Supreme Court rulings. In 1917, in Buchanan v. Warley, the court said municipally-mandated racial zoning was unconstitutional, but the ruling did not apply to private agreements such as restrictive covenants. In 1926, in Corrigan v. Buckley, the court upheld restrictive racial covenants and they soon became common nationwide.
“Shortly thereafter, these restrictions were endorsed by federal housing administrators and lenders alike, creating a system that shaped communities and segregated neighborhoods throughout the country,” the post said.
The National Association of Realtors has acknowledged it openly supported the development of racial covenants and encouraged homeowners to put such covenants on their properties. In November, the 1.4 million-member trade group formally apologized for this and other past policies that contributed to segregation and racial inequality nationwide in the 20th century.
“This is how our industry developed,” Bryan Greene, NAR’s vice president of advocacy policy, told Inman in a phone interview in December. “This was systemic. It was part of the industry. Soon thereafter, the federal government with industry support began to redline and again, systemically segregated America’s communities.
“So, it may be hard for some people today to look back and fully appreciate that discrimination in the past was not just random acts of discrimination or bad agents here, bad agents there. It was how we organized communities with government support. The industry, government, individuals, all agreeing this is how we should live.”
In 1948, in Shelley v. Kraemer, the Supreme Court ruled that racial deed restrictions were no longer enforceable.
“But the structures of segregation remained intact and real estate brokers, agents, and property owners continued to discriminate based on race,” Windermere said in its post.
“Congress struck a blow against these practices by passing the Fair Housing Act in 1968, which prohibited discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, or national origin in the sale or rental of housing. However, the language of restrictive racial covenants is still written in the chain of title for many homeowners nationwide.”
In the document Windermere created for Washington homeowners, the brokerage notes that many title companies strike racial covenants from deeds automatically when a property is transferred and tells homeowners to check with their title company to see if this is the case for their property. If not, homeowners would have to fill out a form titled “Restrictive Covenant Modification” and file it with the appropriate county office in order to remove the language.
Prospective or current homeowners would find any racially restrictive covenants in the preliminary title commitment from the title company before a home purchase closes or in the title policy post-closing, according to Todd Miller, president of CW Title and Escrow in Washington.
“Within either of these documents, she/he would find numbered special exceptions,” Miller said via email. “One of these exceptions would have language referencing Covenants/Conditions/Restrictions/Reservations/Etc. and would reference a county document recording number. If a racial restriction exists it would be outlined within this recorded document (it would be included within the large stack of papers she/he received or added via a hyperlink if the commitment/policy was issued through e-mail/online portal).”
When in doubt, homeowners can call the title company that provided the policy, Miller added. “They would only need to armed with their address the title company could assist them in navigating the above-referenced process to see if racially restrictive language exists.”
See Windermere’s restrictive covenant modification instructions for Washington State: