State bill seeks to eliminate racial restrictions in deeds

Unenforceable since a 1948 Supreme Court ruling, discriminatory language endures in deeds throughout the U.S.

New York /
Mar.March 31, 2022 08:00 AM

From left: James Sanders Jr., member of the New York State Senate, and Phillip G. Steck, member of the New York State Assembly representing Assembly District 110 (New York Senate Photo, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons, Steck for Assembly, iStock)

In December 2020, a neighborhood group in Brighton, New York, removed language from nearly 300 deeds that barred the homes from being sold to people of color.

Lawmakers are now moving to eradicate the discriminatory covenants from deeds throughout the state.

The state Assembly on Tuesday passed a bill that would require property owners to remove deed restrictions that discriminate against potential buyers based on race, religion, disability, sex, source of income, marital status or other factors. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1948 that local governments could not enforce racial deed covenants, but the decision did not prohibit their mere existence. As a result, racist language lingers in deeds throughout the country.

“While not enforceable, it is shocking and offensive that in 2022 that many illegal restrictive covenants are still included in the sale of real property,” Sen. James Sanders Jr., one of the bill’s sponsors, said in a statement. The measure was introduced last year and awaits Senate approval.

If passed, the requirement would kick in when an owner tries to sell their property, meaning the restrictions must be removed before a sale is allowed to proceed.

Condo and co-op boards as well as homeowner associations have a shorter timeline: They must eliminate the restrictive language within one year of the bill’s passage. Under the measure, owners and boards must file a “restrictive covenant modification document,” with their county, but will not face any filing fees and will be able to avoid the longer legal process typically needed to amend a deed.

After the 1948 Supreme Court decision, local governments found other ways to segregate neighborhoods, including exclusionary zoning policies. But racial covenants, too, continued to send a message. In a 2020 report, City Roots Community Land Trust and the Yale Environmental Protection Clinic emphasized that simply by remaining on the books, the unenforceable restrictions that endured in deeds in Monroe County preserved the “capacity to signal White supremacist ideas to neighbors, homebuyers, and realtors.”

In December 2020, the Confronting Our Racist Deeds Initiative filed amendments for 288 deeds in Meadowbrook, a neighborhood in Brighton, the Democrat and Chronicle reported at the time. Until that point, the deeds stated that “[n]o lot or dwelling shall be sold to or occupied by a colored person.”

Other states, including Maryland, Florida, Virginia and New Jersey, have approved legislation aimed at disposing of discriminatory deed covenants. It is not clear how many deeds with restrictive covenants remain in New York, but a separate bill first proposed in 2013 seeks to require the Department of Buildings to create a registry.

Assembly member Phil Steck, who sponsored his chamber’s version of the Sanders bill, dismissed suggestions that the measure is unnecessary and said extracting such language sends an important message to the public.

“The argument that’s made is that everyone knows that you are not allowed to discriminate on this basis,” Steck said in an interview. “I don’t think that’s true.”





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