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Legislation Would Remove Racist Language from Real Estate Deeds

When you buy a house, the deed to the property often contains all sorts of information, such as a legal description of the property. It may also include a paragraph that explicitly forbids people of color from living in your neighborhood. Covenants restricting race and religion have been illegal for years, but they still show up in legal documents. One lawmaker wants to erase the racial restrictions. KPCC's Special Correspondent Kitty Felde says the State Senate Judiciary Committee heard the measure yesterday.

Kitty Felde: Hector de la Torre lives in South Gate. When he took a closer look at the deed for his post war suburban home, he was surprised. Buried inside was this paragraph:

"No lot in said tract shall at any time be lived upon by a person whose blood is not entirely that of the Caucasian race, and for the purpose of this paragraph, no Japanese, Chinese, Mexican, Hindu, or any person of the Ethiopian, Indian, or Mongolian races shall be deemed to be Caucasian."

Felde: The restrictive covenant made an exception for any person of color working as a servant or employee of the homeowner. Racial covenants like these have been illegal since a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1948. But De la Torre points out that his covenant was written in 1949.

Hector de la Torre: When these restrictive covenants were added to the deeds for the property by the homebuilder, they put these restrictions and were probably a great marketing tool for them, for folks to know that they were going to live in the quote-unquote "right neighborhood" with no minorities in them. The irony, of course, is that now, as time has evolved and we have the most diverse state in the United States, being a Mexican-American, I couldn't live in my own house.

Felde: De la Torre isn't just a South Gate homeowner, he's also a state assemblyman. And he's introduced a bill, AB 2204, that would require county recorders to delete racial covenants from deeds anytime a property is sold. The bill is opposed by the California Association of Realtors and title insurance companies.

Both groups point out the covenants have been unenforceable since California passed fair housing laws in the mid-'60s. Craig Page, with the California Land Title Association, says county recorders won't have the time or the money for detailed deed searches.

Craig Page: There was a problem in Texas several years ago where the county recorders in Texas were told to redact all social security numbers out of documents before they released them. And the county recorders panicked because they didn't have the resources or ability to immediately find all the documents and remove these things, and so the panic resulted in them saying they were going to shut off access to real property records.

The concern we have is, if the county recorders shut down access, we're going to have to go back to a manual search process at the county recorders office, which would dramatically increase the cost that consumers would face, as well as delay the escrows.

Felde: In Texas, county recorders got more time to fulfill the mandate. In California, the association representing county recorders opposes the bill, at least in this form. Kathy Treggs with L.A. County's Public Records Division says the task would be daunting for a County that handles just under three million documents of all kinds every year. Treggs says some of L.A. County's real estate deeds go back to 1850.

Kathy Treggs: The way it is written now, it would require the recorder to actually search into the chain of title for every document affecting this piece of property, to ensure that there are no discriminatory language on those documents, and if so, we would have to delete it.

Felde: Treggs says there's a California law already on the books that allows individual homeowners to file a form to strike restrictive covenants from their own deeds.

Treggs: County counsel would determine if the language being stricken does fall under the state and federal laws as being discriminatory, and if so, then we would record that document in our official records.

Felde: That might solve the problem if people knew about it. Since the law took effect eight years ago, only a handful of homeowners have asked to strike restrictive covenants from their deeds. Assemblyman de la Torre's bill has already passed the assembly. The state senate could vote on it in August.