The difficulty in removing racial covenants from deeds

Many properties in the United States had racial covenants written into their deeds where it was stated that the property could not be sold to people of particular racial and ethnic groups. Removing those statements on deeds today can be a difficult task:

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Cisneros, who is white, said she wanted the covenant removed immediately and went to the county recorder’s office. What she thought would be a simple process actually was cumbersome, expensive and time-consuming. She took time off work and had to get access to a private subscription service typically available only to title companies and real estate lawyers. There were forms to fill out that required her to know how property records work. She also had to pay for every document she filed…

In the end, Cisneros learned that the offensive language couldn’t be removed. That is often the case in other cities if officials there believe that it’s wrong to erase a covenant from the public record. Instead, the county agreed to attach a piece of paper to Cisneros’ covenant disavowing the language…

Sullivan knew the only way to rid the language from the record was to lobby elected officials. She teamed up with a neighbor, and together they convinced Illinois Democratic state Rep. Daniel Didech to sponsor a bill. The lawmaker found an ally in Democratic state Sen. Adriane Johnson. The bill allows property owners and homeowners associations to remove the offensive and unlawful language from covenants for no more than $10 through their recorder of deeds office and in 30 days or less, Johnson said. Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, a Democrat, signed the bill into law in July. It takes effect in January 2022…

Illinois becomes the latest state to enact a law to remove or amend racially restrictive covenants from property records. Maryland passed a law in 2020 that allows property owners to go to court and have the covenants removed for free. And in September, California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, signed a bill that streamlines the process to remove the language. Several other states, including Connecticut and Virginia, have similar laws.

I could see how many Americans today would want to strike the racial covenant from their current property but their ability to do so depends on local laws. Righting past wrongs is no quick task, even when later actions have nullified the effects of the earlier language in these deeds.

And there could be a lot of racial covenants out there:

It’s impossible to know exactly how many racially restrictive covenants remain on the books throughout the U.S., though Winling and others who study the issue estimate there are millions. The more than 3,000 counties throughout the U.S. maintain land records, and each has a different way of recording and searching for them. Some counties, such as San Diego County and Hennepin County, which includes Minneapolis, have digitized their records, making it easier to find the outlawed covenants. But in most counties, property records are still paper documents that sit in file cabinets and on shelves. In Cook County, Illinois, for instance, finding one deed with a covenant means poring through ledgers in the windowless basement room of the county recorder’s office in downtown Chicago. It’s a painstaking process that can take hours to yield one result.

The deeds and the potential racial covenants contained therein highlight how land and property is acquired, obtained, and passed along in the United States. There is much to consider there: how was the land acquired and from whom? Who does it benefit now and in the future?