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San Luis Obispo County homeowners raise awareness about discriminatory language in their housing deeds 

In 2017, San Luis Obispo County native Jamie Lewis and her husband purchased their dream home in the city of San Luis Obispo, but they quickly learned the property had ties to historical racist housing policies.

"So we were able to buy our dream home on our dream street in our dream neighborhood in a really dreamy city. And it turns out that it's by design," she said.

When the couple was going through their deed and other property documents, Lewis said their real estate agent, Dawna Davies, printed out the declaration of covenants, conditions, and restrictions of the deed. Covenants contain restrictions, such as setting aside a specific portion of the land for utility installation or stating that a residential dwelling must be a certain distance away from the street.

Recorded in 1940, Lewis' deed had 13 covenants. Her realtor pointed out one in particular, the sixth covenant: "No persons of any race other than the Caucasian race shall use or occupy any building or any lot, except that this covenant shall not prevent occupancy by domestic servants or a different race domiciled with an owner or tenant."

"That language is so rattling. We don't hear things like that. And we certainly don't read things like that in a federal, state, regional, or city sanctions document," Lewis said.

The language, known as a racially restrictive covenant, is in original property deeds throughout the United States. Racially restrictive deed covenants were embedded into property records during the 20th century to prohibit people of color from buying or occupying land. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states could not enforce racial restrictions in 1948, and in 1968, Congress outlawed them altogether.

Although the restrictions are unenforceable, they still exist on paper.

Lewis and her husband were shocked that a record of the covenant still existed, let alone was attached to their home.

"White privilege often looks like not being confronted with the realities of racism. I have never had to think about this," she said. "I know a lot of people, especially Black and Indigenous people of color, will think it's crazy that I had no idea, that so many of us had no idea, that this was going on."

Lewis saved the digital copy of her deed at the bottom of her email inbox as a reminder that she had to do something about it. It stayed there until she watched the video of George Floyd's death in May. She decided it was time to do something as an ally, no matter how big or small the action.

"I get how small this is, really. But it was a way that we could start a conversation with our neighbors about the fact that this is a white neighborhood," she said.

When Lewis spoke with a property attorney about removing the racially restrictive covenant, he advised her to reach out to a local organization to learn about the potential impacts of its removal.

There are many people, she learned, who argue in favor of keeping the covenant so that future homeowners are aware of its history. Lewis reached out to R.A.C.E. Matters SLO and agreed to work with the organization on a short documentary film, Restrictions Apply—slated to release on social media this month—about Lewis' findings and the conversations she had with neighbors.

Lewis was once again pushed "to do something" in July when SLO County Sheriff Ian Parkinson said the county "was being trashed over an issue that is truly not here in that form."

"Because now, we don't just have an indication of system racism in San Luis Obispo County, we have certifiable codified government-approved proof of it," she said.

The sheriff's comments about a lack of racism in the county were also why Atascadero resident Judith Hemenway reached out to Atascadero Mayor Heather Moreno about the racially restrictive covenant in Hemenway's original 1919 deed—on the home she and her husband purchased in 2010—and how to remove it.

At the time, the city was working on creating a resolution that stated the city "will not tolerate racial bias and welcomes warmly and without reservation neighbors of all races and ethnicities." Thanks to Hemenway, as part of the resolution, Atascadero went on the record to "repudiate historical racial restriction on ownership" and inform the community on how to redact the covenant from their deed.

"I think for us it was being able to recognize that this is an instance of major wrong that was against people of color and that is something that has had consequences ongoing, and in terms of [people of color's] ability to accumulate wealth," Moreno said.

For Hemenway, getting the word out is the tip of the iceberg, and it's the country's below-the-surface, government-enforced segregation that people should pay attention to.

In her covenant research, Hemenway began reading Richard Rothstein's book The Color of Law, which examines local, state, and federal housing policies that mandated segregation. Rothstein wrote about the establishment of the Federal Housing Administration in 1934, which refused to insure mortgages in and near Black neighborhoods, a policy also known as redlining.

A Reuters study detailed the inequality between white and Black Americans made possible by decades of laws and policies. According to the study, a Black family is about half as likely to own their home as a white family.

According to the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, new data from the 2019 Survey of Consumer Finances show that long-standing and substantial wealth disparities between families in different racial and ethnic groups had hardly changed since the last survey in 2016. Wealth for this survey is defined as the difference between families' gross assets and their liabilities. The report states that the typical white family has eight times the wealth of the typical Black family.

The University of Minnesota's mapping prejudice project reported majority-white neighborhoods to have more parks and more generous tree cover, while communities of color have more environmental hazards like landfills and highways.

Realtor Davies said she combs through the fine print of all her clients' paperwork and shares all the information she digs up on a property because it's an ethical practice that her father, also a real estate agent, instilled in her.

Lewis isn't the first client that she's had to show a racially restrictive covenant to, Davies said, but Lewis is the first to get it redacted. However, Davies said, that's not a positive or negative comment on any of her past clients.

She said she doesn't have any anecdotal evidence that the covenant affects the valuation of a property today.

"In fact, it's often most conspicuous in older areas that have gone up in value. So where it hits people is in its existence and the morality of it," Davies said. "It should have never been there." Δ

Staff writer Karen Garcia can be reached at kgarcia@newtimesslo.com.

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