If you live in a home built before the 1950s, there’s a chance that lurking in its property records is racist language.
For decades in the first half of the 20th century, developers, real estate companies and communities inserted covenants into property deeds and neighborhood association bylaws that forbid Black, Asian and Jewish residents from living in those homes.
Now the University of Washington, John L. Scott, and Amazon Web Services (AWS) are working on efforts to discover and remove the restrictive covenants from records in Washington state — while also helping educate the public about past and present discrimination in housing.
In the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s, the language was promoted as a way to protect property values. It helped perpetuate segregation when other racist strategies were outlawed. And the Pacific Northwest, which has often viewed itself as more progressive on race issues, embraced the practice.
“Segregation in the Northwest was not that different than segregation in the South,” said UW history professor James Gregory.
Since 2005, Gregory has been leading the UW’s work combing and digitizing property records to unearth the language. In the last couple of years, John L. Scott and AWS have joined the effort, developing a platform that would make it easier for homeowners to identify and take action to remove the covenants from their records.
Discovering racist language in your own records, “it kind of hits you viscerally,” said Phil McBride, chief operating officer for John L. Scott, which operates across the West Coast and in Idaho.
McBride stumbled upon the wording when he and his wife bought a home decades ago in Maryland. Its wrongness stayed with him, and he recently began applying his real estate expertise to the problem.
For most residential properties in the state, the documents including the covenants are not available in a digitized format, existing only in bound volumes, microfiche or microfilm. Through the painstaking work of the UW researchers — which now also includes more than 700 online volunteers on the Zooniverse crowdsource platform — they have identified thousands of properties with racist covenants.
- In King County, which includes Seattle, at least 30,000 deeds are known or suspected to include the covenants; more than 1 million records in the county are not yet digitized
- 4,000 deeds in Pierce County, which includes Tacoma
- 4,000 deeds in Snohomish County, which includes Everett
- 5,000-7,000 deeds in Spokane County in Eastern Washington
- Less than 2,000 deeds in Thurston County
- About 2,000 deeds in Whatcom County
Gregory’s team found entire Seattle-area communities covered by the language. William Boeing, founder of Boeing Aircraft, led the development of neighborhoods such as Blue Ridge, Innis Arden, Richmond Beach and Richmond Heights — and included racist covenants in all of them.
The Blue Ridge development, located in Northwest Seattle and overlooking Puget Sound, included language stating:
No property in said addition shall at any time be sold, conveyed, rented, or leased in whole or in part to any person or persons not of the White or Caucasian race. No person other than one of the White or Caucasian race shall be permitted to occupy any property in said addition or portion thereof or building thereon except a domestic servant actually employed by a person of the White or Caucasian race where the latter is an occupant of such property.
Since 1968 and Congress’ passage of the Housing Rights Act, it has been illegal to enforce the racist covenants. However, these and other discriminatory actions have had lasting impacts that are important to grasp, Gregory said. The public can’t fully appreciate why minority groups are disadvantaged, he said, without understanding how property restrictions kept them from owning homes.
“People were not allowed to buy property for generations,” he added, “because of these kinds of restrictions.”
“As a bit of a historical record nerd, and knowing that those covenants existed in Seattle during the time the house was built, I was curious to see if there was anything in the deed,” said Zenobi, who is director of experience at the software company Ad Hoc and studied anthropology.
Sure enough, the racist restriction was there.
Using King County’s website, the couple was able to add an amendment to the deed “that basically says ‘we recognize this part of the record is racist nonsense and is unenforceable, and are adding this amendment to note that someone took action to have it called out and nullified,’” Zenobi said by email.
Over the years, Washington state lawmakers have passed legislation to remove the filing fees and make it easier to strike the language from individual deeds and homeowners association by-laws. Last year, the Legislature approved a bill authorizing teams from the UW and Eastern Washington University to search records statewide for the restrictions, and to inform property owners of their existence. The project has funding until June 2023.
But even with efforts by lawmakers to make the removal of racist language easier, it can still be laborious.
The platform that McBride and Amazon are working on tries to simplify it for homeowners. Here’s how the prototype works:
- It uses automated, machine learning tools from AWS to search digitized deeds and property documents for restrictive language.
- If found, a homeowner has the option of modifying or redacting the language.
- The platform automatically finds and inserts required information about the property into a standardized form.
- Because of the documents’ legal nature, the application to change them needs to be notarized. The platform has a link to schedule an appointment with an online notary.
- Once the signatures are notarized, the site files the information with the county auditor and sends a confirm to the homeowner.
While the site is largely built, there are significant challenges to address. Most importantly, the platform still needs a database of digitized property records. While the UW has thousands of them for research purposes, the county auditors need to give AWS and John L. Scott permission to use them in this capacity. And many properties don’t have their complete records in a digitized format.
McBride is talking to mortgage and title companies that have repositories of digitized documents to see if the project can get access to them. He’s eager to launch the tool early next year, and has heard from organizations in other states that are interested in passing legislation and providing this service.
Gregory said that he, too, would like to see the platform succeed.
For now, John L. Scott employees will manually guide people through the redaction process. The company is committed to helping remove the racist covenants, McBride said.
“Because we were complicit and complacent in this, I feel like we ought to make it right from an industry standpoint,” he said.
And the reality is that there are ongoing discriminatory housing practices, such as appraisers assigning lower values for Black-owned than white-owned properties, that need correcting.
“Taking care of the past,” McBride said, “allows us to talk about what’s relevant today.”
Editor’s note: This story was updated to add a description of Lauryl Zenobi and Zac Cohn’s experience with the covenants.