Racist deeds in Sonoma County and elsewhere are still on the books. A new state law seeks to get rid of them
Eve Lindi wasn’t prepared for the notice she received from her title company in May as she closed on the purchase of her home in the Santa Rosa Junior College neighborhood.
Under a section of the deed that included restrictions against conducting business from the property or owning pig pens and chickens, there was this:
“No person of African, Japanese, Chinese or of any Mongolian descent shall be allowed to purchase, own, lease or occupy said real property or any part thereof; except that this covenant shall not prevent occupancy by domestic servants of a race or nationality restricted hereby when employed by the owner or tenant.”
“I knew about these kinds of covenants, but it felt really weird that it was on the house that I was purchasing and that this had been buried in the books for so long here in Northern California,” Lindi said.
The practice of racial covenants began in the late 19th-century and was used across the country to keep racial, ethnic and sometimes religious minorities from buying or renting land in specific areas of a given community.
Though racist covenants were declared unenforceable by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1948, they continued to be used in California until the passage of the 1963 California Fair Housing Act. That made it illegal to discriminate in housing on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin.
A federal version of the law followed five years later.
Still, racist language remains on the books in individual property deeds in California and the rest of the country. And while some dismiss them as a toothless vestige from a different time, many see them as a haunting reminder that systemic racism is not yet in the nation’s rearview mirror.
Erasing the past
A new state law that took effect in July is expected to make it easier to find and redact racial covenants from California property deeds, which supporters say is a long overdue acknowledgment of the role the measures played in housing segregation across American communities.
Assembly Bill 1466 requires real estate agents, brokers, escrow companies and others involved in the home buying process to notify anyone who is purchasing or acquiring a property with a restrictive covenant in the deed that they have the ability to have it removed.
That means California counties are required to find, redact and index deeds with racial covenants. The law also grants county recorder offices, working with their respective county counsel’s office, the authority to redact such language from property deeds on their own.
The language is easy to miss in the flurry of paperwork involved in the homebuying process, and is often passed on from owner to owner.
Antiquated record-keeping at many county recorder’s offices makes racial covenants difficult to track, while the often cumbersome process of removing the language from deeds in California, until recently, presented another barrier.
Though some researchers have undertaken time-consuming projects to identify racial covenants in specific communities across the U.S., only a few have been able to quantify the long-term impact of such restrictions and only in certain areas.
Racial covenants combined with other forms of discriminatory housing practices served as tools employed by developers, real estate agents and investors that led to the control of the accumulation of wealth through homeownership, UC Berkeley’s Othering & Belonging Institute found in its Roots, Race, & Place report, which published in 2019.
Those practices also restricted access to educational opportunities and resources by steering people of color away from specific neighborhoods.
The effects of that kind of segregation are long lasting, the report states.
“Racial disparities in wealth, income, and ownership translate into differences in economic power in markets,” the report found. “This difference in economic power has meant that white people have had significant advantages in the housing market even after individual acts of racial discrimination were prohibited.”
The UC Berkeley report found that racial covenants were common across the Bay Area, embedded in the property deeds of the first homes of Daly City’s Westlake subdivision, south of San Francisco, in 1949, as well as in the East Bay town of San Lorenzo in 1944, where a covenant covering an entire development excluded nonwhites from living there.
In Sonoma County, they are found everywhere from the Madison Square subdivision in Petaluma to Mirabel Heights near Forestville to the Del Rio Woods neighborhood near Healdsburg.
Black families faced the most discrimination among racial and ethnic minorities locally in terms of finding a place to live, according to a U.S. Commission on Civil Rights hearing in 1960, which included a report on discrimination in Sonoma County.