Good deeds program helps to remove racial exclusion language from home deeds
When Oregon became a state in 1859, Black people were specifically prohibited from living here. The legacy of that systemic and institutional racism exists in many forms, including racial exclusion language on home deeds. Representative Julie Fahey (D-Eugene, Junction City) discovered she owned a home with such language and spearheaded a 2018 bill to try to simplify the complex legal process to remove the discriminatory language. The racially restrictive covenant on Fahey’s deed reads: “No member of any race other than the Caucasian race shall use or occupy any building except as domestics in the home of an owner or tenant.” The process for removing the language from deeds is still complicated, she says, and must go through the court system. We talk with Fahey and with Riccardo Waites, founder and CEO of the Central Oregon Black Leaders Assembly, which just launched the Good Deeds program to help rid homeowners of this racist language.
This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: When Oregon became a state in 1859, Black people were specifically prohibited from living here. The legacy of that systemic racism exists and reverberates in many forms today. One of them is exclusionary racist language written into home deeds, language forbidding Black people and other people of color from buying homes or buying homes in particular neighborhoods. I’m joined now by two people who have been working to make it easier to remove these racist covenants. Julie Fahey is a Democratic State Representative from Lane County, including west Eugene and Junction City. Riccardo Waites is the founder and CEO of the Central Oregon Black Leaders Assembly, which just launched the Good Deeds Program. Julie Fahey, can you explain what these racist covenants are?
Julie Fahey: In deeds of real property, there are often things that we call CC&Rs, (Covenants Conditions and Restrictions) that are associated with the property. Those CC&Rs are binding legal obligations that are written into a deed and they stay with the deed into perpetuity. It’s typically things like how many buildings you can have on a property, setbacks, or heights of those buildings, etc. During the first half of the 20th Century, it was pretty common practice to use restrictive covenants to prohibit property from being sold or rented to minority communities.
The restrictive language was typically written into property documents all across the country, not just in Oregon, during the Great Migration, where millions of African Americans moved from the rural south to the northeast, the midwest and the west. An example of that language is in the CC&R’s for my [own] home, which were written in 1949. There is a restriction that says ‘no member of any race other than the Caucasian race shall use or occupy any building except as domestics in the home of an owner or tenant’. That language is no longer enforceable or legal and can’t be written into the deed of a home that’s currently being built. But it does remain in the property titles and deeds all across the state of Oregon.
Miller: What went through your mind when you discovered that in the papers connected to your [own] home?
Fahey: It was pretty stunning. I think I intellectually knew about the history of racially restrictive covenants. But it was just very different to see it in black and white. My husband and I purchased our current home in 2015 and in the process of reviewing the deed and the CC&R’s from this very old document in the 1940′s, it was pretty shocking to see that language written out so clearly. I worked with our realtor and tried to work with our title company to talk about how that language could get removed. And through that process I discovered that it’s actually quite a complicated process.
You have to file in Circuit Court to get the language removed. We were not going to be able to do that before we closed on the home. And so the best compromise we came up with was just clarifying in the language that, yes, any items in the CC&Rs that are no longer legal or enforceable are not in force.
Miller: You actually ended up crafting a bill in the Legislature three years ago that became law to make it a little bit easier for people to get rid of parts of deeds like this. We’re going to [talk] more about that but Riccardo Waites, what got you focused on this issue of racist language, exclusionary language built into deeds?
Riccardo Waites: I actually did an interview with [Oregon State] Senator Lew Frederick. In that interview he said ‘if I were living in Bend I should take a look at some of the early covenants and I’m sure you would find racially biased covenants in Bend’. At that point I didn’t know what a racially biased covenant was. So I began researching and once I did that research, I decided to go ahead and try to create a program that would bring everybody together and do it together.
Miller: As we heard from Representative Fahey, these covenants are no longer legal and they’re no longer enforceable because of the US Supreme Court ruling and then the Fair Housing Act, the law of 1968. Given that, what’s at stake in removing this language which is like an appendix. It doesn’t act anymore on a property.
Waites: Yeah, you can say that and technically that’s true. The Fair Housing Act did make it illegal for these covenants to exist. However, if you think about it in a different way, let’s say I’m a young man, 14, 15 years old. I’m Black. I go to a mostly white school, I’m being bullied racially, which happens a lot where I live. And I just happened to see my parent’s deed to the house and it says that Black people cannot live in the house that I’m living in. It reinforces the negativity received at school, [the negativity] received in a Black person or in [the daily life of] any person of color. So we want to remove any temptation or any derogatory language that can affect young people’s minds or anyone’s mind.
Miller: Can you explain what the Good Deeds Program is that you helped set up?
Waites: The Good Deeds Program provides a place for homeowners who have taken a look at their deeds and found racially biased covenants. It assists them in having these things removed. And Representative Fahey, I thank her so much for getting that bill pushed through because it makes it even easier. It makes it a no-cost issue for homeowners to do this, which can be a big deterrent. With that bill in place and this Program in place at least in Central Oregon, I hope it spreads throughout Oregon. But with those things in place, we now have one place where a homeowner can go and know how to take care of any covenants that s/he finds inside his deed.
Miller: Julie Fahey, what exactly changed under Oregon law because of the bill that you introduced?
Fahey: H.B. 4134, which passed in 2018, simplified the process for removing discriminatory restrictive covenants from the deeds of homes. It did a number of things in the details of that court process, some of which were complicated. Basically, it eliminated filing fees in court for that type of action. And it streamlined the process for notifying parties who have an interest in the process. So we worked with the Department of Justice back in 2018 to craft the language and really try to make it as simple as we could. We acknowledge that it still does require a court process because we are talking about a property deed. And that is still intimidating for some people and does contain some complexities and confusion. So I very much appreciate the work of folks like Riccardo, the work of the Oregon Bar and The Oregon Judicial Department to help homeowners through the process [by] putting together some forms that homeowners can use to guide them through the court process.
Miller: Have you been able yet to change your deed and strike this language from the papers connected to your property?
Fahey: I have not gone through the process yet. We waited until those Justice Department forms were published. And the pandemic really slowed the process down of implementing the law.
Miller: And so you wanted to wait to basically do this like a normie ... like the rest of us to see how the bill that you helped make into law actually works for regular people?
Fahey: I waited for the forms to be published. The legislative session ended at the end of June and I’m getting working on things like filling out the forms and and what the process of filing in court would actually be. So the pandemic slowed down both the work of implementation and obviously the court process because courts were busy.
Miller: Getting rid of this now unenforceable language doesn’t do anything to change the lingering effects of those once enforced covenants. It doesn’t change the history and the lingering effects of redlining or predatory loans. What else do you think lawmakers can or should do in response to decades and decades of racist housing policies?
Fahey: The discriminatory language can be removed from the deeds, but the impact of the history of racist and exclusionary practices in housing in this country cannot be erased. Those redlining and discriminatory covenants systematically locked out millions of American families from the most common way that we accumulate wealth in this country. So those past practices continue to affect access to affordable housing today and the distribution of wealth across American families. This bill was important and it was, in my mind, an awareness raising vehicle to help talk about that history of discrimination.
But the real work of the Oregon Legislature is to close those gaps in homeownership levels across races in Oregon. We have data that shows that 32% of black Oregon households own a home as compared to 65% of white households. So this session in the Oregon Legislature, we took a number of actions to help remedy that gap. We invested $10 million in down payment assistance that will go to culturally responsive organizations to help increase homeownership opportunities to people of color, $2 million in technical assistance and outreach to help reduce barriers to homeownership and almost $5 million in fair housing enforcement and education activities. That is the financial investment.
And there are also policy changes that we’ve been focused on. This year we passed a couple of bills that put additional education requirements on realtors and others involved in the housing industry around implicit racial bias and fair housing laws. And we renewed the Legislature’s Joint Task Force on Addressing Racial Disparities and Homeownership, which did some great work over the last couple of years to bring forth the recommendations that we passed in the session this year.
Miller: Julie Fahey and Riccardo Waites, thanks very much for your time today. Riccardo Waites is the Founder and CEO of Central Oregon Black Leaders Assembly and he is just starting something called We Black Radio which is launching in three days this coming Friday, [August 6, 2021].
If you’d like to comment on any of the topics in this show, or suggest a topic of your own, please get in touch with us on Facebook or Twitter, send an email to email@example.com, or you can leave a voicemail for us at 503-293-1983. The call-in phone number during the noon hour is 888-665-5865.
Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting