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How to Remove a Racially Restrictive Housing Covenant

A miniature home with a chain and lock across it
By Andrew Leonatti on November 03, 2020

The death of George Floyd and months of protests surrounding his and other police killings of Black Americans has sparked many important conversations of the myriad other ways that race discrimination rears its ugly head in our country.

One of the most long-overdue discussions now taking place centers around a powerful tool that is probably the most responsible for denying wealth to countless Black families for decades: the racially restrictive housing covenant. As we finally start to grapple with these terrible instruments' cruel legacy, eyes are now turning toward action and sending these contracts to the dustbin of history where they belong.

What Are These Covenants?

As urbanization took off in the first half of the 20th century, covenants quickly became the favored tool of white residents, developers, and neighborhood associations to keep minorities out of their neighborhoods.

Essentially, in a housing transaction, language would be inserted into the house's deed stating that in the future, the house could not be sold to people of certain races. One covenant used in Minneapolis said:

"The said premises shall not at any time be sold, conveyed, leased, or sublet, or occupied by any person or persons who are not full bloods of the so-called Caucasian or White race."

As covenants caught on, the federal government endorsed their usage for housing projects using federal funding. As Black populations increased, Black homebuyers found their options limited to certain areas of cities.

The Supreme Court outlawed enforcement of racially restrictive housing covenants as a violation of the 14th Amendment in 1948's Shelley v. Kraemer decision. In short, the court held that private parties could agree to covenants, but courts could not enforce them. In 1968, Congress passed the Fair Housing Act, further cementing protections from housing discrimination for minorities.

While this essentially rendered the covenants powerless, they remain on countless housing deeds to this day.

State Laws Making Covenants Easier to Remove

Even though covenants are essentially worthless, many homeowners do not want them to remain on their homes' deeds for completely understandable reasons.

In Maryland, a new law took effect on October 1, allowing homeowners to appear in court for free to have a covenant removed, easing bureaucratic challenges. Similar laws are also now on the books in Washington, Florida, and Virginia.

Members of the California State Assembly also recently announced they are exploring legislation to make it easier to strike racially restrictive covenants from housing deeds.

For those in other neighborhoods across the country, changing covenants might still be a bureaucratic nightmare requiring petitions, court appearances, and endless paperwork. Speaking with a real estate or housing discrimination attorney is likely your best bet to learn more about stripping racially restrictive covenants from housing deeds.

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