Law requires removal of ‘racial covenants’ from California property records
Under a new state law, counties must now work to purge their property records of the decades-old racist language that once barred people of color from buying homes in California neighborhoods.
Starting July 1, the law also requires real estate agents and services to notify homebuyers if such prohibitions — called racial covenants — are known to be tied to a property and to help redact illegal rules.
While the covenants were ruled unenforceable by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1948, racial justice advocates say removing racist language is necessary to address the region’s painful history of discrimination.
“This law brings home the fact that the covenants are not just our legacy, but their remnants are still in effect,” said Tomiquia Moss, founder of the Bay Area advocacy group All Home, which has lobbied for the passage of the bill last year.
In the first half of the 20th century, it was common for developers and homeowners associations across the country to include clauses in deeds and other property records to prohibit specific races and groups of people from move into certain houses. In the Bay Area, covenants remain on the books in neighborhoods from Oakland Hills to Redwood City and beyond.
Some property records include terms such as “no person of any race other than white or white” may use or occupy the property, except for “servants of a different race domiciled with an owner or tenant”.
Other covenants from this era specifically prohibit residents of “African, Mongolian, or Japanese” descent.
Restrictive covenants — along with discriminatory zoning laws and other practices — have contributed to the enduring wealth gap between whites and people of color, experts say. As minority families are excluded from the housing market, they have often been prevented from moving to areas with more resources and building up equity in their homes, a stepping stone to wealth that can be passed on from generation to generation.
“Racial residential segregation in the Bay Area is not natural or simply a matter of individual preferences and actions,” states a 2019 report from UC Berkeley’s Othering and Belonging Institute. “Today’s patterns are in part the result of a wide range of coordinated tactics used to perpetuate racial exclusion before the enactment of federal and state fair housing legislation.”
In 2000, California implemented a process for landlords to remove racist language from property records. The state’s new law, Assembly Bill 1466, now allows anyone, even those who do not own or live in properties with racial covenants, to file a form asking officials to county to redact the language.
The law also requires real estate agents, title companies, and escrow services to alert a homebuyer if they are aware that any covenants are attached to a property.
Ramesh Rao, a South Bay estate agent, said the new rules shouldn’t be difficult to follow.
“We already give a number of notices to sellers and buyers in any transaction, and we will add another notice to that effect,” Rao said.
To comply with the law, Bay Area County Recorder offices are implementing programs to identify and redact covenants from their millions of property records dating back to the 1800s.
Matt Yankee, chief of the Alameda County Clerk’s Office, said his staff plans to use special software to help scan, review and remove race covenants from the majority of registered county property records by five years old, and manually browse through the remaining older documents that cannot be read by a computer. The agency also aims to allow residents to alert those responsible for racist language through its public records portal.
“We’re hoping to have some sort of ‘report this document’ button,” Yankee said. “We want to know right away to act immediately.”
But Stephen Menendian, a research fellow at the Othering and Belonging Institute, worries that removing the language from property records could hamper efforts to study and map covenants in the state. The University of Washington has found more than 20,000 properties in the Seattle area with racial covenants, The Seattle Times reported in 2019.
“It’s going to make it much harder to know the extent of race pacts in California,” Menendian said.
Yankee said redacted records will still be identified by a cover page indicating that an engagement has been removed. The original copies can also be viewed through a public records request, according to the text of the bill.
Moss, along with the advocacy group All Home, said she wants real estate officials and associations to do more to educate the public about the new law, as well as to prevent any continued violations of fair housing — such as the potential discrimination in home appraisals or mortgages. .
“That means we know it happened, we know it’s still happening.“, Moss said, “and we’re doing something about it.”