Discriminatory restrictive covenants spread throughout the United States in the early twentieth century. Discriminatory restrictive covenants were intended to prevent people of color from moving into certain neighborhoods. Although they are now illegal and unenforceable, some properties may still include discriminatory covenants in their historical record.
This page provides resources regarding discriminatory restrictive covenants on real estate, what they mean, and what property owners can do about them.
A restrictive covenant is a provision on a Deed, Mortgage, or other recorded instrument that regulates the ownership or use of a parcel of real estate.
No, lawful uses of restrictive covenants include land use restrictions such as maintaining land for public parks or nature preserves, or permitting only single-family homes, or prohibiting industrial activities on the land.
Discriminatory restrictive covenants are clauses that prohibit the ownership, occupancy, or use of land based upon a particular trait, such as race, color, national origin, religion, sex (including gender identity and sexual orientation), family status, disability, or other protected classes.
Generally, yes. Since the United States Supreme Court’s 1948 decision in the case Shelley v. Kraemer, restrictive covenants based on race have been unenforceableA contract will not be enforced by a court of law..
Although deeds and mortgages today do not contain any illegal discriminatory restrictive covenants, a historical search of a property’s chain of titleThe historical record of ownership transfers of a specific piece of property. may uncover restrictive covenants recorded from the 1920s to the 1960s (or even earlier).
Every county or town’s recorder of deeds office is open to the public for research into the history of every parcel of land in that county. Many counties, including many of the most populous counties in the country, have made their records available online. However, online records may not be comprehensive, and may only cover the past few decades. There are “mapping” projects underway in parts of the country to search for discriminatory restrictive covenants. Some of these projects are:
- Marin County, CA Restrictive Covenant Project
- Mapping Segregation in Washington, DC
- Digital Chicago project of Lake Forest College
- Mapping Racism Project, Prince George’s County, MD
- University of Minnesota Mapping Project
- St. Louis County, MO Restrictive Covenant Project
- King County, WA Racial Restrictive Covenant Project
There is a patchwork of laws across the United States addressing the legacy of discriminatory restrictive covenants. The states listed below have adopted laws that make it easier to record documents to modify or remove discriminatory restrictive covenants from historical recorded documents such as deeds and mortgages. In other states, a court action might be necessary to obtain a judge’s order removing the discriminatory restrictive covenant. You may need to consult an attorney familiar with real estate records. Please remember that discriminatory restrictive covenants based on race, religion, national origin or sex are illegal and unenforceable. There is no obligation to remove the discriminatory restrictive covenant in order for all homeowners to enjoy the ownership and use of their properties regardless of their race, religion, national origin, or sex.
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