The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Racist housing covenants haunt property records across the country. New laws make them easier to remove.

William Turner and Alana Hackshaw watch their children, 10-year-old Harry Turner, left, and 6-year-old Jordan Turner, show off their “secret brother handshake.” (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

Richard and Ayu Humphries are the neighbors the founders of Rock Creek Hills didn’t want.

Their suburban Maryland neighborhood’s racially restrictive housing covenants — documents attached to deeds that follow homes from owner to owner — are brutally blunt.

As one dated May 6, 1946, explains, property “shall never be used or occupied by . . . negroes or any person or persons, of negro blood or extraction, or to any person of the Semitic Race, blood or origin, or Jews, Armenians, Hebrews, Persians and Syrians, except . . . partial occupancy of the premises by domestic servants.”

Richard is White. Ayu is a Black immigrant from Ethiopia. And she’s not his maid — she’s his wife and mother of the couple’s two children.

While those exclusions haven’t been enforced for generations, new laws in Maryland and across the country are helping the Humphries and others who blanch at racist covenants still on the books.

Facing a national reckoning amid protests and Black people’s deaths at the hands of law enforcement, lawmakers and homeowners are grappling with the legacy of racist housing covenants and weeding them out of property records. They are finding these covenants ubiquitous and difficult to destroy, but have come up with new plans for their removal.

A Maryland law that took effect Oct. 1 allows homeowners to go to court to have them removed for free, streamlining a legal process that had stymied most residents’ attempts to right historical wrongs.

‘Black branding’ — how a D.C. neighborhood was marketed to white millennials

Del. Catherine M. Forbes (D-Baltimore County), who sponsored the Maryland legislation, said she got the idea after meeting a woman who was surprised to learn a covenant on her home excluded members of several racial groups. A previous version of the law sunset last year, she said.

“My constituents really wanted their deeds to reflect the communities where they live and their own personal values,” she said. “The state should do everything in its power to make this easy.”

Richard Humphries cringes at the racist language in his development’s covenants. Before Forbes’s legislation, he was told removing them would be a bureaucratic nightmare requiring several residents and mortgage companies to sign a petition.

For Ayu, the covenant is mystifying.

“I was really, really surprised,” she said. “I’ve never learned about African American history and what people went through. And sometimes I jokingly say that, coming from Africa, I am closest to White privilege.”

Racism lurking for generations

The new Maryland law is going to make Peter Chatfield’s life easier.

The president of the Rock Creek Hills Citizens’ Association, Chatfield, an attorney who represents government whistleblowers, started researching covenants when he moved to the neighborhood in 2004.

He lives beneath an enormous tulip poplar on a handsome corner lot. His home is draped with solar panels, his front lawn studded with American flags and Black Lives Matter signs. The drone of the Beltway is audible, but no deterrent to the neighborhood children welcome to play on the rope swing he hung for his grandchildren. There’s even a fairy garden.

The idyllic scenes don’t square with the derisive language used decades ago to keep people of color out of the neighborhood. Chatfield, sorting through a century’s worth of property records, eventually found about 400 covenants that applied to Rock Creek Hills’s 33 blocks, overlapping in ways that would make a contract attorney’s head spin.

Many covenants included racist and anti-Semitic language, although none have been enforceable for decades.

Redlining was banned 50 years ago. It’s still hurting minorities today.

In 1948, the Supreme Court considered the case of Shelley v. Kraemer, in which a St. Louis man sued an African American family who bought a home in a neighborhood that excluded “people of the Negro or Mongolian Race.”

The court found the judicial branch couldn’t legally enforce such covenants, though it also found the St. Louis covenant didn’t violate the Black family’s civil rights. Twenty years later, any doubt that racially restrictive covenants were illegal was dispelled by the Fair Housing Act of 1968.

But the covenants remained on the books. They lurk in public records — ugly reminders of a not-too-distant past.

“We wanted to reverse the message — to tell people we are going to get rid of these things affirmatively even though it’s a lot of work and expense,” Chatfield said. “Because it’s atrocious.”

'Maybe it takes a George Floyd moment'

Legislators across the country have come to the same conclusion as those in Maryland.

In 2018, a Washington state law let some residents remove racially restrictive covenants simply by visiting their county website — though a court decision last year called that authority into question. In Florida last month, Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) signed a law that aims to eliminate bureaucracy associated with removing covenants.

In August, four members of the California State Assembly announced an effort to remove them from state property deeds.

Assemblyman Kevin McCarty (D-Sacramento), one of the sponsors of the California bill, said he was “physically disturbed” when a real estate agent told him of a “Whites-only” covenant affixed to a house in Sacramento he bought 20 years ago. McCarty’s father is African American.

“I said, ‘Why do those exist?’ ” he said. “She said the government never got rid of them. And I am — 20 years later . . . Maybe it takes a George Floyd moment.”

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) this year signed legislation that allows property owners to “release” restrictive covenants without an attorney. In D.C., the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled in 1972 the Fair Housing Act prohibits the Recorder of Deeds from accepting a deed with such a covenant.

Susan D. Bennett, a law professor at American University, is working with law students and residents of Woodmoor, a Silver Spring, Md., community north of the Beltway, to strip racist covenants from property records “deed by deed.” She compared their removal to that of Confederate statues.

America is more diverse than ever — but still segregated

“Nobody wants to be a party to this anymore — particularly now,” she said. “The motivation behind it is to explore, to educate . . . to make it clear that this was unacceptable and the fallout over decades from Whites-only property regimes was unacceptable.”

Alana Hackshaw, a political scientist who teaches at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy, lives in Woodmoor with her husband and two sons. She’s not sure what racially restrictive covenants may apply to her two-story brick Colonial, built in 1948, but knows that her community is filled with them.

“I identify as Black,” she said. “I feel my presence in this house challenges what this deed says.”

Hackshaw, 43, has studied the suburbanization of the United States, a demographic shift grounded in the baby boom and the flight of White residents from cities. She wants racist covenants gone — but she also wants them to be remembered.

Before she bought her home in 2018, the family living there had owned it for 40 years. Though the neighborhood is welcoming, its links to a less-welcoming time are palpable.

“I’m supportive of anything that challenges it, but I don’t want this history erased,” she said. “If you’re able to map out and record the number of racial covenants across suburbs in the United States, it’s a way to quantify the amount of wealth African Americans and others were denied.”

A foundation for today's disparities

Mara Cherkasky, a D.C. historian, has reviewed about 100,000 of the city’s property records and found about 20,000 racially restrictive covenants. She said they are at the root of systemic racism that has created dramatic differences between White and Black wealth in America.

In the first half of the 20th century, developers built neighborhoods with restrictive covenants to shape their demographics. The covenants were institutionalized by the Federal Housing Administration, created in 1934, which offered loans to neighborhoods with covenants under more favorable terms. The banking industry followed the practice, creating redlining maps that perpetuated unfair lending even after covenants were outlawed.

Kirsten Delegard, director of the Mapping Prejudice Project at the University of Minnesota, which tracks racial covenants in the Minneapolis area, said racial covenants appeared in the 1840s in Massachusetts. They spread to the West Coast in later decades of the 19th century, where they targeted Asian immigrants, then “started spreading all over the country.”

They applied to millions of homes, she said.

“It’s not just big cities,” Delegard said. “It’s little towns. It’s resort areas, rural communities and big cities. We’ve never gone looking in a county for racial covenants and not found them . . . We can argue about their significance or their impact, but they’re everywhere.”

As they spread, Black people were forced into older housing in older neighborhoods associated with poverty and crime, locked out of the middle class by their inability to buy a home — a major source of wealth that is created as homes appreciate in value.

Last month, data from the Survey of Consumer Finances showed Black families’ median wealth, at $24,100, was less than 15 percent of White families, at $188,200.

Coronavirus could widen black wealth gap

“The whole justification for this was that the presence of Black people in a neighborhood would create instability,” Cherkasky said. “We link that all the way back to restrictive covenants.”

Rock Creek Hills, in Montgomery County, Md., shares that legacy with neighborhoods across the Washington region and the nation. In a county that’s majority-minority, the neighborhood is in a census tract that’s 80 percent White, 9 percent Hispanic, 4 percent Asian and 3 percent Black. 

Those figures aren’t the portrait of diversity, but residents say the neighborhood is welcoming to everyone.

On a recent afternoon, Sudhir Shetty, Chatfield’s neighbor, emerged from his house wearing a Washington Nationals mask. He said the neighborhood, which he moved to in 2002, has embraced his family, which is of Indian descent.

“There’s nothing wrong with the neighborhood,” he said. “There was nothing wrong 18 years ago. It’s a welcoming neighborhood. There’s no sense of exclusion.”

Even in the past decade, Ayu Humphries said, Rock Creek Hills looks different. There are fewer older residents and more children at the bus stop where, before the pandemic, her kids waited to get picked up for school.

The covenants that once would have excluded her family still remain — at least for now.

“I thought those things were hundreds of years ago, but it’s not that far,” she said.

D.C. neighborhood votes to remove plaque honoring white supremacist senator

Black families pay significantly higher property taxes than white families, new analysis shows

D.C. slaveholders once won reparations. Now, the city eyes payment for descendants of enslaved people.