SALEM — When Oregon lawmaker Julie Fahey and her husband bought a house, the deed said that only whites could live there unless the person was a domestic servant.
Across America, many homeowners and buyers of older properties like Fahey are shocked to see racist exclusions remaining on deeds, decades after they were outlawed. Fahey researched how to remove the offensive language and discovered that doing so would be complicated and expensive.
Notice would have to be served to every person and institution with financial interest in the property and a request filed in court.
Fahey, a Democrat in the Oregon House of Representatives who is white, decided to sponsor a bill to make it easier for people to scrub the offensive language from their deeds. The measure unanimously sailed through Oregon’s House of Representatives on Wednesday, but not before it opened a window on how the racist provisions are hurtful, and how they underscore housing inequalities that persist.
Sen. Lew Frederick, an African-American representing Portland, told a hearing on the bill last week that the deed to his home still has language that says he cannot live there.
“This is not enforced, but it’s quite a surprise to discover that I am illegal living in my own house,” Frederick said.
Rep. Mark Meek, who is a real estate agent and represents the Portland suburb of Oregon City, described “uncomfortable discussions” with clients that arise when racist exclusions are listed.
“I say it’s not enforceable, but the history of it and really the true ugliness of it (persists) even though we’re in a different era,” said Meek, a Latino.
“I think it comes to a time where we don’t erase that history, but … we make a path for those citizens and those owners of those properties who say that’s no longer allowed here.”
The U.S. Supreme Court in 1948 made restrictions based on race unenforceable. They were outlawed by the federal Fair Housing Act of 1968. Before, the Federal Housing Administration denied mortgages based upon race and ethnicity, a practice known as redlining that kept people who weren’t white from buying into more desirable areas where property values were rising.
California lawmakers passed a bill in 2009 to have racist covenants purged whenever property changes hands, but former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed it, noting the covenants are void and raising concerns about counties raising fees to cover costs.
California lets residents request to have the covenants redacted, and several other states have taken measures to purge racist language from housing documents.
Still, these whites-only covenants remain on property deeds across the country, from South Carolina, to Missouri, to Washington state. A study by the University of Washington found racial restrictions in scores of neighborhoods in Seattle and its suburbs.
“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,” says a restriction in Seattle’s Beacon Hill neighborhood.
Another covenant says: “No part of said property hereby conveyed shall ever be used or occupied by any Hebrew or by any person of the Ethiopian, Malay or any Asiatic Race.”
Fahey’s deed for her house in the university town of Eugene, dated May 31, 1949, says only a “Caucasian” can use or occupy any building in the subdivision “except as domestics.”
Her bill, which goes before the Senate, would enable a homeowner to notify interested parties by certified or registered mail about the plan to scrub a racist covenant. The new process would ensure that no other fees would be imposed.
“For me, it was about making sure that the next person who buys the house doesn’t have to see this language and go through this process,” Fahey said.
“The goal is to make sure that all Oregonians can feel welcome in their homes.”