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Racist deeds in Sonoma County and elsewhere are still on the books. A new state law seeks to get rid of them

Racial covenants have remained embedded in individual property deeds in California and throughout the U.S. The language is easy to miss in the flurry of paperwork involved in the home-buying process.|

Racial covenants across Sonoma County

Deva Proto, Sonoma County’s clerk, recorder, assessor and registrar of voters, said she has no estimate of how many Sonoma County property deeds may have restrictive covenants in them.

A search of county records and interviews with local homeowners indicate they are spread throughout the county, primarily in neighborhoods built in the earlier half of the 20th century.

That includes homes in the Madison Square subdivision, Petaluma’s first suburban development, which was built in 1946 near the present-day Whole Foods grocery store on East Washington Street near Payran Street.

There also are homes in rural West Sonoma County, including in the Mirabel Heights neighborhood and the redwood-lined Green Valley Road near Forestville, that bear racial covenants in their property deeds.

Farther north, a deed dated 1930 for property in the Del Rio Woods neighborhood east of Healdsburg prevented any “person except those of the Caucasian race” from living there.

Assembly Bill 1466, approved in July, requires that county officials identify and remove racial covenants from their records.

Under the previous law, “Only someone with a property interest could record a document that modified property restrictions, even if it was only to remove illegal discriminatory language,” Proto said. “That’s no longer the case.”

Critics fault the new law for failing to include funding to map, not just index, the covenants. They also worry the new law will make it harder for researchers to pin down information about racial covenants in the future.

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.”

'Mapping Prejudice’

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.

Black residents made up about 3,700 of the county’s voting-aged population in 1957, though only a handful of families — three in Santa Rosa, one in Petaluma and one in Healdsburg — were known to own homes in Sonoma County, the report said.

The report included specific instances of housing discrimination, including a time when a Black woman named Mary Cleveland inquired about finding a home in Santa Rosa’s Montgomery Village and was told by a real estate company that while there were several homes available, they were located in a “very exclusive neighborhood where there were no minorities living and where there would not be.”

In another case, a county committee on housing, called Housing for Everyone, discovered a man was advertising lots in a tract on Petaluma Hill Road near Cotati as “restricted” in a San Francisco newspaper in 1959.

The report also highlighted instances of apparent discrimination in employment and education in Sonoma County, noting that there was a considerable number of Black children enrolled in schools where neighborhoods have “been hospitable” to their families, among them the Roseland, South Park and Bellevue neighborhoods.

“Through the reading of this report, the interrelationships between the various problems of discrimination begin to become obvious,” the report said.

Stephen Menendian, the assistant director of UC Berkeley’s Othering & Belonging Institute, said there’s a lot more that’s still not known about racial covenants.

Unlike redlining, a practice used by the federal government, as well as lenders, to restrict investment in neighborhoods based on demographics on a map, racial covenants remain buried in home deeds. And the process to root them out takes a considerable amount of time and money, said Menendian, who is also the institute’s director of research.

It’s only within the past few years that researchers have been able to use geocoding technology to boot up large-scale projects related to racial covenants, he added.

One such project came from the University of Minnesota.

Called “Mapping Prejudice,” it enlisted the help of more than 6,087 volunteers to comb through and transcribe more than 80,000 deeds, resulting in the creation of an interactive map of racial covenants in Minnesota. So far, 26,000 racial covenants have been located by the team over the course of 33,000 hours.

Using that data, researchers found that Minneapolis properties with racial covenants were worth, on average, 4% to 15% more compared to properties which were not covenanted.

Menendian would have liked the California bill to include funding for such mapping projects.

“For 98% of the country, that (research) hasn’t been done yet,” he said. “That’s my main critique of this bill.”

A relic of legalized racism

Menendian also believes the law will make such research more expensive and time consuming because of the amount of paperwork that will have to be rerecorded and redacted in order to remove the covenants. This amounts to more documents to sort through for researchers, he said.

“I think it centers on white guilt. It makes no sense because these covenants are already unenforceable,” he said of the law. “The discomfort of having (covenants) there doesn’t outweigh the ability of future scholars to compile this data.”

Cassidy Blackwell, who works in strategic communications at Airbnb, said she had mixed emotions after finding a restrictive covenant in the Forestville home she bought with her husband in 2020.

“For me, facing this document and facing this language was really traumatic as a Black woman,” Blackwell said. “As a first-time homeowner, it forced me into a moment of recognizing trauma.”

The couple found the covenant as they were going through the closing paperwork for a home on Green Valley Road, where they no longer live. Shocked by what she read, she said she began researching the practice to better understand its impact.

On one hand, she felt empowered that she, a Black woman, and her husband, (her fiance at the time) who is Jewish, were in a position to defy the restriction that once prevented families like hers from living on that land.

But there also was the reality that she’d just come face-to-face with a bitter relic from the time of legalized racism in America.

“For me, facing this document and facing this language was really traumatic as a Black woman,” Blackwell said. “As a first-time homeowner, it forced me into a moment of recognizing trauma.”

In Sonoma County, officials plan to rely on an outside company that specializes in character recognition software to search for covenant language in an estimated 24.2 million typewritten images that contain property deed information, said Deva Proto, Sonoma County’s clerk, recorder, assessor and registrar of voters.

Handwritten documents will likely need to undergo a manual review unless the county can identify software with the capability of scanning and searching for specific text in handwritten files, Proto said. A county plan for following the requirements of the new law estimates there are roughly 121,000 of those images from 1899 or earlier.

A request for proposals seeking a vendor for the project is pending, Proto said.

The County Recorders Association of California is required to submit status reports on the progress of each county’s covenant program to the state by Jan. 1 and again two years later. A $2 recording fee authorized by the bill will help pay for the extra work required by the state law.

“It will be an extensive amount of work, so that fee will help pay for vendor costs, for staff time, and for county counsel fees,” Proto said.

While the worthiness of the law is debated, its impact on the real estate industry is already visible.

At First American Title in Petaluma, the state mandate has resulted in notices to clients that explain their right to remove the discriminatory language from deeds, said Marcus Ginnaty, a spokesman for the company. The company was the one that Lindi, the Santa Rosa homeowner, said helped her in the final steps of the purchase of her home.

No such form existed before the lead up to AB 1466, Ginnaty said.

Lindi said she appreciated the notice, one that spurred questions about how such covenants have shaped her own neighborhood, and the property values of the homes within it, through the active exclusion of others.

“These kinds of things are just buried in our history,” Lindi said. “They’re embedded, and how much of this goes by without notice or question? It feels like a lot to root out.”

You can reach Staff Writer Nashelly Chavez at 707-521-5203 or nashelly.chavez@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @nashellytweets.

Racial covenants across Sonoma County

Deva Proto, Sonoma County’s clerk, recorder, assessor and registrar of voters, said she has no estimate of how many Sonoma County property deeds may have restrictive covenants in them.

A search of county records and interviews with local homeowners indicate they are spread throughout the county, primarily in neighborhoods built in the earlier half of the 20th century.

That includes homes in the Madison Square subdivision, Petaluma’s first suburban development, which was built in 1946 near the present-day Whole Foods grocery store on East Washington Street near Payran Street.

There also are homes in rural West Sonoma County, including in the Mirabel Heights neighborhood and the redwood-lined Green Valley Road near Forestville, that bear racial covenants in their property deeds.

Farther north, a deed dated 1930 for property in the Del Rio Woods neighborhood east of Healdsburg prevented any “person except those of the Caucasian race” from living there.

Assembly Bill 1466, approved in July, requires that county officials identify and remove racial covenants from their records.

Under the previous law, “Only someone with a property interest could record a document that modified property restrictions, even if it was only to remove illegal discriminatory language,” Proto said. “That’s no longer the case.”

Critics fault the new law for failing to include funding to map, not just index, the covenants. They also worry the new law will make it harder for researchers to pin down information about racial covenants in the future.

Nashelly Chavez

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, The Press Democrat 

Who calls the North Bay home and how do their backgrounds, socioeconomic status and other factors shape their experiences? What cultures, traditions and religions are celebrated where we live? These are the questions that drive me as I cover diversity, equity and inclusion in Sonoma County and beyond.   

 

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