“Racial covenants” are once again in the news. The term describes a restriction, based on race, on who may own and use a particular piece of real property. Seattle — like every other American city — used them to keep certain neighborhoods exclusively for white occupants. These covenants are sordid and dirty — and thus an essential part of our history. And unlike most “history,” these covenants still exist — now rendered meaningless by Fair Housing laws.
“Covenants” restrict use of property.
Covenants are a type of legal restriction that an owner can place on real property. The are often included in a document entitled “Covenants, Conditions, and Restrictions” (or CC&Rs). Particularly after WW II, CC&Rs were commonly placed on new home construction. They are very common today. Anyone with a Homeowner’s Association is bound by CC&Rs. Once recorded with the county, CC&Rs bind the current and all future owners of the property subject to them.
Racial covenants were common.
This being America, these covenants were used to protect and advance the white power structure. Beginning in the 1920’s, developers of new housing would record covenants that restricted the ability of non-white people to own and use the new homes. And you can still find these documents today, they are stored forever at the Recorder’s Office. From such a covenant, contained within a deed recorded in 1932:
Warning: This is disgusting racist language.
5. Said property or any part thereof shall not be conveyed, sold, rented, leased, or otherwise disposed of in whole or in part, to or to be occupied by, any person or persons except of the white race, except, however, of the case of a servant actually employed by the owner and occupant thereof.
Ugly stuff. Thankfully, these restrictions are no longer legal or valid. Just the opposite.
Fair housing laws make discrimination illegal.
In 1968, the nation passed the Fair Housing Act. The law addressed the rampant racism in America’s neighborhoods. Until then, these sorts of covenants weren’t the only tools used to enforce systemic racism. Lenders engaged in red-lining and brokers engaged in block busting. Check out that map again at the top of this post. If you know anything about the “good neighborhoods” in Seattle, you’ll understand what this map is about. “Definitely declining” and “Hazardous”? It was an ugly time.
Thankfully, times have changed. Yes, there are still challenges in making Seattle’s housing stock “race neutral” (as the Seattle Times makes clear in that link above). But at least we find these covenants, and other overtly racist behaviors of the past, revolting. Nonetheless, history should not be forgotten — and in the case of a recorded document, can’t be blotted out.