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Bill would help Washoe County homeowners remove racist covenants from housing deeds

Kalie Work stands at a long table with an open, large book with sepia-tinted pages. Behind her are rows of large red, black, and gold hard-backed books.
Lucia Starbuck
/
KUNR Public Radio
Washoe County Recorder Kalie Work reviews property records, including racial housing covenants, at the library of the Washoe County Recorder’s Office in Reno, Nev., on May 23, 2023.

Purple Politics Nevada is KUNR’s weekly show about the 2023 Nevada Legislative Session. In this week’s episode, host Lucia Starbuck explores racist covenants in housing deeds in Washoe County and a short history lesson on why they exist. State lawmakers are considering a bill to allow discriminatory language to be removed.

Click here for a transcript of the audio story.


Episode Overview

If your home or subdivision was constructed before the federal Fair Housing Act of 1968, there’s a chance the contract has a racial covenant that prohibits people of color from occupying and purchasing the home.

“You can tell they’re boiler templates that were just essentially moved from one to the other,” Washoe County Recorder Kalie Work said.

This is something Washoe County Commission Chair Alexis Hill found when purchasing her home in Reno.

“We bought our house in the old Southwest in 2012 and we were so excited, our first home, so proud. We were in the title office, and we came across the CC&Rs, and they were things like you can’t have a clothing line in the front of your house that can be visible, you can’t have a repair shop, and then, you can’t have people that aren’t white, essentially. There was a lot of shame,” Hill said.

In 2019, the legislature passed a law allowing homeowners to add a note in the deed that they disagree with the language, but the racist language can’t be removed. In spite of this, fewer than two dozen people have done so.

Senate Bill 368 by Democratic state Sen. Dallas Harris would allow homeowners, HOAs, nonprofits, and academic institutions to petition the court to have the language removed. The legislation also requires recorders to maintain the original record with the discriminatory language.

“History is important and the existence of the language will not be scrubbed from history,” Harris said.

The Race and Reno Research Project at UNR, co-directed by Jacob Dorman, a core humanities and history associate professor, estimates there are 8,000-10,000 homes with racial covenants in Washoe County.

“Nevada was called the Mississippi of the West. There’s a really painful history of racial discrimination in this county, in the city, and in the state. One of the benefits of SB 368 is to recognize and implicitly, I think, to apologize for some of the discrimination against people of color,” Dorman said.

Listen to this week’s episode of Purple Politics Nevada with Lucia Starbuck to learn more about the history of racist covenants buried in the fine print home deeds in Washoe County.

More information about what Washoe County homeowners can currently do can be found here, and the form to disavow offensive language in a deed can be found here. Residents can also send tips to the Race and Reno Research Project at racialcovenants@gmail.com.


Transcript

(UPBEAT JAZZ MUSIC BEGINS)

LUCIA STARBUCK, HOST: Welcome to this week’s episode of Purple Politics Nevada. I’m your host, Lucia Starbuck. The name reflects the fact that Nevada isn’t red or blue — it’s both.

(UPBEAT JAZZ MUSIC BEGINS)

STARBUCK: Today we’re talking about racist covenants in housing deeds — something Washoe County residents might find in the fine print when buying a home — and a bill to allow for that language to be removed. I spent time with Washoe County Recorder Kalie Work in the recorder’s library, flipping through original property records containing covenants, conditions, and restrictions commonly called CC&Rs.

(SOUND OF PAGES FLIPPING)

(SOUNDBITE OF KALIE WORK): All right, here’s one. This is a declaration of restriction. This one was recorded June 27, 1941.

STARBUCK: Wow. It’s like so shocking to like actually see.

(SOUNDBITE OF WORK): I know. You can tell there are different templates, boiler templates, and that were just essentially moved from one to the other.

STARBUCK: If your home or subdivision was constructed before the federal Fair Housing Act of 1968, there’s a chance the contract has a racial covenant that prohibits people of color from occupying and purchasing the home. This is something Washoe County Commission Chair Alexis Hill found when purchasing her home in Reno.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALEXIS HILL): We bought our house in the old Southwest in 2012, and we were so excited, our first home, so proud. We were in the title office, and we came across the CC&Rs, and they were things like you can’t have a clothing line in the front of your house that can be visible, you can’t have a repair shop, and then, you can’t have people that aren’t white, essentially. There was a lot of shame.

STARBUCK: In 2019, the legislature passed a law allowing homeowners to add a note in the deed that they disagree with the covenant, but the racist language cannot be removed. In spite of this, fewer than two dozen people have done so. Senate Bill 368 by Democratic state Sen. Dallas Harris would allow homeowners, HOAs, and nonprofits to petition the court to have the language removed. But the legislation also requires recorders to maintain the original record with the discriminatory language.

(SOUNDBITE OF DALLAS HARRIS): History is important and the existence of the language will not be scrubbed from history.

STARBUCK: So why does that history exist? I spoke with Jacob Dorman, an associate professor of history and core humanities at UNR, to answer this question. When was this language added and what was the intention?

JACOB DORMAN: Racial covenants were put in place in the 1920s. They stayed in place really until they were ruled illegal by the Fair Housing Act. The idea was to quote-unquote protect the property values of the homes that they were in. The system that they replaced was outright violence where, especially black homeowners that moved into majority-white neighborhoods, their houses were commonly bombed. Racial covenants were a way of accomplishing the same thing of keeping people of color out of white neighborhoods. And they became almost a best practice in housing. And also to protect white supremacy. Housing is the major way that Americans have built wealth and passed it on. This became really personal for me when I bought a house in Reno. My wife and I were going over the CC&Rs, and it said, ‘Only Caucasians can live in this house unless there as a servant.”

STARBUCK: How did that make you feel when you saw that?

DORMAN: Awful. I mean, my wife is from Mexico, so she technically would not be allowed to live in our home because these CC&Rs are still on the books even though they’re unenforceable legally.

STARBUCK: You’re part of a team at UNR researching this. How did this study come about?

DORMAN: I study African American history and I teach US history. And whenever I teach about racial covenants, almost all of my students have never heard of them. It’s more common to know about redlining, where the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation created these maps that blocked off any neighborhood that had people of color and said that those were higher risk for mortgage loans. Racial covenants, though, were embedded in individual property deeds.

STARBUCK: What neighborhoods in Washoe County have this language in their home deeds?

DORMAN: Well, they’re found all over. In Reno, we’re finding a lot of these covenants in the Old Southwest, Northwest and close to UNR, in Midtown, a few in Sparks and Incline Village. So we estimate that somewhere between 8,000 and 10,000 individual homes in Washoe County have these racist covenants.

STARBUCK: What Washoe County is experiencing isn’t unique, but what does the racial covenants tell you about this county’s history?

DORMAN: Nevada was called the Mississippi of the West. There’s a really painful history of racial discrimination in this county, in the city, and in the state. One of the benefits of SB 368 is to recognize and implicitly, I think, to apologize for some of the discrimination against people of color.

(UPBEAT JAZZ MUSIC BEGINS)

STARBUCK: That was Jacob Dorman, a core humanities and history associate professor at UNR. I’m Lucia Starbuck, and you’ve been listening to Purple Politics Nevada.

(UPBEAT JAZZ MUSIC ENDS)

The theme song, “Vibe Ace” by Kevin MacLeod, is licensed under Creative Commons and was edited for this episode.

Lucia Starbuck is an award-winning political journalist and the host of KUNR’s monthly show <i>Purple Politics Nevada</i>. She is passionate about reporting during election season, attending community events, and talking to people about the issues that matter most to them.
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Purple Politics Nevada is produced by KUNR’s Lucia Starbuck. Vicki Adame is the show’s editor, and Crystal Willis is the digital editor. Zoe Malen designed the show’s logo.