When Angie Gould and Paul Hunt bought a house in South Land Park last year, they didn’t expect their beautiful new home would hold a dark secret tied to America’s history of racist housing policies.
While signing paperwork, they came across a passage their real estate agent noted with an exclamation mark: A covenant prohibiting non-white people from living in the home, unless they were servants.
“It was just surprising and dismaying,” said Gould, who later worked with Sacramento County to scrub the language from the property records.
Racially restrictive covenants, which were part of a racist system called redlining, were used in the first half of the 20th century as a way to keep African-Americans, Asian-Americans and other minority groups out of certain neighborhoods.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled these racist covenants unconstitutional over 70 years ago, but the Jim Crow-era language survives in the property records of many houses in Sacramento and across California, often without owners realizing it.
Under current state law, homeowners can request to modify property documents that contain racist covenants. Officials with Sacramento County told CapRadio they process about five modification applications per year, though there’s been an uptick in recent months. However, the process does not completely remove the covenant; the language remains, but with a line through it.
Now, a group of state Democratic lawmakers want to establish a system that proactively erases these covenants. The proposal is based on legislation that died over a decade ago, but lawmakers today believe there’s more will to pass it now, as the nation reckons with its sordid past — and the enduring presence — of racial inequality.
“This would set up a process where any time a house is transferred or the deed changes, these covenants would be removed,” said Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, a Democrat from Sacramento.
‘It Is Shocking’
Faye Wilson Kennedy with the Sacramento Area Black Caucus says the very existence of racially restrictive covenants in property records can trigger painful reminders of systemic racism for homeowners.
Kennedy knows from firsthand experience. When she and her husband bought their Southeast Village home in 1995, she discovered a covenant restricting the property to whites only.
“A lot of people don't know about it until they really read their deeds,” she said. “It is shocking, but it's there.”
Kennedy says the redlining of neighborhoods over 70 years ago gave way to “modern-day redlining,” where people of color are more likely to live in disadvantaged neighborhoods, attend struggling schools and receive higher-cost loans.
Cassandra Jennings, president of the Greater Sacramento Urban League, argues that this modern-day redlining also makes it harder for people of color to enjoy prosperity when the community at large improves.
“Once you restrict people to certain neighborhoods, it’s hard for them to move up and move out,” she said. “Unless you gentrify it, and push them out.”
In other words, a rising tide may only lift white boats — and capsize ones of color.
Both Jennings and Kennedy say racist covenants should be erased from property records in California. State law offers a process for individual owners to modify their property records, but it can be cumbersome, and the results may not be satisfactory.
Gould, who purchased the home in South Land Park last year, says Sacramento County was helpful in her effort to nix the restrictive language attached to her deed, but the experience was more laborious than she expected.
The county sent her a package containing forms to sign and a copy of the covenant for her to strike out the offending passage, line by line. She then had to pay for a notary when she signed the forms. When she submitted them, the county returned the documents, requiring her husband, who is also on the title, to provide a notarized signature.
Sacramento County no longer charges fees for these changes, in line with a 2005 law that made it easier to modify the covenants. But the process still requires time, volition and some money to get the documents notarized.
Gould says there should be an automatic process to erase these harmful covenants that continue to “lurk in the background.”
“I think it shouldn't be there — it never should have been there,” she said.
Past Efforts Have Failed
In 2009, former Assemblymember Hector De La Torre, a Democrat who represented part of Los Angeles, introduced a bill to create a statewide system for removing racially restrictive covenants from property records when a property was sold or transferred.
The Legislature passed the bill, despite voting down a similar proposal the previous year.
But then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed it.
“While the goal of this measure is a worthy one, the practical legal effect is negligible,” Schwarzenegger wrote in his veto message. “The restrictive covenants this bill would redact from certain recorded documents are already illegal and void under existing law.”
The Democratic lawmakers behind the renewed effort plan to model their legislation on De La Torre’s 2009 bill, and argue there’s more momentum today to see it passed.
Erin Stumpf, a broker associate with Coldwell Banker, says it’s not unusual to encounter these covenants when buying a home in California, especially in older neighborhoods.
She recently tweeted a screenshot of a particularly repugnant covenant tied to a home in East Sacramento, requiring that the property be “restricted to persons of the Caucasian Race [sic] forever.”
But she says there could be practical issues with trying to remove the covenants the way lawmakers are proposing.
McCarty told CapRadio he would like to see the language completely removed from property records, not simply modified with a strikethrough.
Stumpf says it’s unclear how a county would do that. The deed and associated property documents are supposed to serve as a historical chain of record for everything that has affected the home — including past neighborhood restrictions, however objectionable.
But if lawmakers and counties can make it work, Stumpf says she supports the idea.
“Clearly, that’s a legacy that no one wants to relive any time a property is sold,” she said.
Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled Erin Stumpf's name. It has been corrected.
Follow us for more stories like this
CapRadio provides a trusted source of news because of you. As a nonprofit organization, donations from people like you sustain the journalism that allows us to discover stories that are important to our audience. If you believe in what we do and support our mission, please donate today.