Starting Jan.1, 2022, King County property owners who have unlawful and discriminatory restrictive covenants in their deeds will be able to remove the clauses.
Discriminatory restrictive covenants are exclusive clauses made by land developers, realtors and neighborhood associations about who can occupy a property based on their race, national origin, ethnic background or religion.
The removal is voluntary. Owners who wish to have the covenants removed should make a case to King County Superior Court and file a $20 fee. The restrictive covenants will remain in the King County Archive for historical purposes, but they will not appear in records of future property transactions.
Owners can also choose to keep the covenants or file a restrictive covenants modification, an option that came out in 2018, which puts a notice on the land title records and states the discriminatory rule is void and unenforceable. The modification will not remove the restrictive covenants from the deed and has no charge to owners.
In addition, the state requires real estate agents and property owners to disclose discriminatory restrictive covenants during a sale or other kind of property transaction.
In the first half of the 20th century, these restrictions were often strategies for segregation. The rules legally prohibited non-white residents from buying or renting a property in specific neighborhoods, thus excluding them from white communities. Most neighborhood signs and real estate advertisements explicitly state “restricted.”
“Interestingly, (racially) restrictive clauses almost always have exceptions for servants,” said Madison Heslop, a historian and graduate student at the University of Washington. “The only non-white people who were allowed to live in the houses were servants.”
From the 1910s, many neighborhoods in King County actively practiced racially restrictive clauses until 1968, when the federal government passed the Fair Housing Act and banned all restrictive covenants.
Now restrictive covenants are not enforceable, but still present in property records. Owners often don’t know these restrictions exist in their deeds.
Heslop is a researcher at the Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project. The team identifies restrictive racial clauses in deeds and studies their historical and current impacts. One of the study’s goals is to inform property owners about the clauses so they can decide to remove or keep them.
The team has found more than 500 discriminatory restrictions in deeds that apply to at least 20,000 properties in King County. They created a computer program that reviews thousands of deeds and identifies restrictive covenants. They anticipate seeing more as they progress.
The impacts of real estate, school and job segregation caused by restrictive covenants are prevalent. They have largely shaped the demographic pattern we see today in Seattle and King County. For example, more white residents live in North Seattle, while Central and Southeast Seattle have more racial diversity.
Heslop said the study would help people understand the history of where they live and encourage them to make justice and equity for everyone living in the neighborhood.
Sunny Wang is a contributing writer.
Read more of the Dec. 29, 2021-Jan. 4, 2022 issue.