State bill looks to help homeowners remove racists clauses from property deeds

At one time restrictive covenants were put into deeds, which allowed racial restrictions.

When was the last time you checked your home's deed? Probably a long time, right? Well, you might want to. Original property deeds from the 1910s to about the 50s or 60s may contain racist language that prevented minorities, specifically African Americans, Asians and Native Americans, from buying or renting properties.

"Restrictive covenants," as they are called, became popular nationwide and in Oregon and Washington after the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed racial zoning in 1917.

In 1948, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states could not enforce the racial restrictions. Their impact endured, though, until 1968 when Congress outlawed them altogether and instituted the Fair Housing Act.

Deeds after the 1950 and 60s did not contain such language because it was illegal, but some unchanged, original deeds may still have this language.

State Rep. Julie Fahey, D-Eugene, found her home's deed contained a restrictive covenant.

"My husband and I purchased a home several years ago. There was a restriction in the deed saying that only members of the Caucasian Race can live in this home," Fahey told KATU. "I live in West Eugene, and the area, it's fairly diverse now, but when the subdivision was set up, all of the homes in the area had these restrictions."

The racist clauses could be voluntarily added by a property owner, a group of landowners, or they could be added under pressure from real estate boards or neighborhood associations.

Fahey tried to remove the restrictive covenant from her home's deed, but found it to be difficult and expensive.

The process right now is to file a petition in Circuit Court, then notify all of the owners of record. Once the petition is approved, a homeowner must notify all of the owners of record via certified service, which can be expensive. And Fahey says an attorney must be hired to help.

"It was cumbersome and difficult," Fahey said. "We wanted to make it easier for the average homeowner to take this language out if that’s what they wanted to do."

Fahey introduced House Bill 4134, which aims to streamline the process to remove the racist covenants.

Fahey's office sent KATU an example of a landowner's original deed that contained a restrictive clause.

The deed, dated 1941, listed contractual rules for selling lots in a subdivision near Southwest Boones Ferry & Southwest Colorado roads in the Collins View neighborhood in Southeast Portland. Covenant Five stated, "the property herein described ... shall not in any manner be used ... by negroes, except that person of said race may be employed as servants by residents."

"These racially restrictive covenants systematically lock down millions of American families from the most common way to accumulate wealth in this country," Fahey said of owning property. "We are trying to dismantle those messages from the history of our state."

Fahey says HB 4134 unanimously passed the House Committee on Human Services & Housing last week. The bill is now headed to the House floor, where it is likely to be discussed this week.

"Piece by piece, we want to make it clear that we want everyone welcomed here in Oregon," Sen. Lew Frederick said, "and that we are not going to allow the marginalization that has been part of the past."

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