A significant number of Ann Arbor suburbs and individual houses have racially-restrictive sections in their covenants — which bar people of color, particularly Black Americans, from home ownership — according to research from University of Michigan Law professor Michael Steinberg and Urban Planning assistant professor Robert Goodspeed.
Goodspeed and Steinberg presented their findings to the Ann Arbor Planning Commission on Jan. 12, looking to raise awareness about the covenants included in many Ann Arbor residents’ deeds and the looming presence of racism they said many locals are ignorant of.
“Most Ann Arbor residents believe that they live in a progressive community that is enlightened on issues of race,” Steinberg wrote in a February 2020 letter to the members of the project committee. “Racism and white supremacy may plague many other parts of the country, the thinking goes, but Ann Arbor is an island where people of color have enjoyed equal opportunity for generations. The reason Ann Arbor neighborhoods are still segregated, many think, is because housing prices are so high in the city, not because of race discrimination.”
But despite Ann Arbor’s progressive reputation, Steinberg and Goodspeed found 66 subdivisions within the Ann Arbor city limit with some variation of racial discrimination in their covenants, pointing to the legacy of institutionalized racism in the community.
“(The covenants) were private agreements, mostly in new subdivisions when a developer came in in order to get funding from the banks or government, they wanted to make it an exclusively white neighborhood,” Steinberg told The Michigan Daily. “And so there would be portions of the deed next to ‘no fences or no frats’ that would say certain things.”
One of the most common racially-restrictive covenants present in Ann Arbor reads: “no part of said land shall be occupied by persons not of the Caucasian race except as guests or servants.”Other covenants say only people of the Christian faith are allowed to live on the property, Steinberg said in the planning commission meeting.
The racist agreement is typically listed under agreements that the homeowner must sign. When Steinberg bought his first house on the Old West Side in 1985, he was surprised when he found out that the house has a racially-restrictive covenant.
“I read through my closing documents and talked to my real estate agent and I said, ‘What is this, I can't believe this is part of the house I’m buying,’” Steinberg said. “She responded that it wasn’t enforced, and that I shouldn’t worry about it because there are lots of houses in Ann Arbor with the covenants.”
When Steinberg originally talked to a lawyer about removing the racial covenant in the 1980s, he said he was told the removal process was long and expensive and an attempt to remove it was not worth it. Steinberg’s current house also has a racially-restrictive covenant in its deed, he said.
The covenants are no longer enforceable, as the 1948 Shelley v. Kraemer Supreme Court case ruled that racially-restrictive covenants are in violation of the 14th Amendment, the equal protection clause.
“Before 1948, if I sold my house to a Black family, my neighbor had the ability to sue me, preventing a Black person from buying the house,” Steinberg told The Daily. “And the courts upheld them. They said this is a private agreement among all neighborhood residents, and Michigan Supreme Court held that it was constitutional to enter into these private agreements.”
After living in Ann Arbor for 36 years, Steinberg told The Daily he promised himself that one day he would do something about the covenants. He runs a clinic at the Law School called The Civil Rights Litigation Initiative. His clinic gives students the opportunity to work on civil rights cases in a professional clinic setting.
“We decided that we would make one of our projects a project to educate people about racially-restrictive covenants in Ann Arbor and to work with policymakers to show how racially-restrictive covenants cause housing segregation and discrimination today,” Steinberg said. “And then take action to eliminate them on homes in Ann Arbor.”
Steinberg’s work in the clinic has extended to a committee including community members, city officials, students and other professors.
The advisory board and project committee approach this topic with an open-ended educational aspect, as well as a hope to create policy changes, according to Goodspeed.
Goodspeed is working with the committee to create an interactive map of Ann Arbor that will show which houses have racially-restrictive covenants on them. Mapping these covenants can help to influence policy makers, call for legislative action and assist in community education, Steinberg said in the planning commission meeting.
Kiera O’Connor is a youth activist on the committee who has been working closely to develop community education programs. At the Planning Commission meeting, she said as a young woman of color, it’s hard to imagine closing on a house and then finding a racially restrictive covenant in the documents.
“You know you’re buying this wonderful house and you’re so excited,” O’Connor said at the meeting. “And then you see this and you just don’t really feel welcome in the community. And it’s just, it’s really just imagining how uncomfortable that would be. And also, these restrictive covenants have kind of created Ypsilanti in a way, because they drove people of color out of Ann Arbor.”
Naina Agrawal-Hardin, a member of the advisory board committee, said racial zoning — legal practices in urban planning designed to exclude racial and ethnic minorities — is responsible for creating predominantly white communities that isolate people of color.
“It’s one piece of a much broader societal puzzle that is still telling people of color, and especially Black people, that they don’t belong in certain sectors of society, or that they're not good enough to live in integrated neighborhoods to go to integrated schools,” Agrawal-Hardin told The Daily. “And that's just so fundamentally unjust.”
The life expectancies in Washtenaw County and the neighboring Wayne County have over 6.5 years difference, and this is just one of the problems that racial zoning creates, Agrawal-Hardin said.
These problems are shown in disparities between Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti. In an article comparing Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti opportunities, Ann Arbor had much higher levels of job access, neighborhood stability, economic well-being, and health rankings.
Steinberg said he and the committee are focused on providing education on racial covenants in hope for a solution in the future. The educational outreach committee is focused on making curriculum for K-12 students in the Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti area, Agrawal-Hardin said.
It is difficult to do a lot of community outreach during the pandemic, but the project is just at its beginning and will hopefully be ready for community education when COVID-19 is over, Steinberg said.
Goodspeed said the research of the project has continued throughout the pandemic and is manageable to work from home on it.
“It’s moved a lot quicker than we expected from the goodwill of different stakeholders,” Goodspeed said. “The title industry and company allowed us access to their proprietary files to speed up our ability to discover subdivisions that have spatial covenants. In addition, the County Register of deeds is very supportive, giving us access to files.”
Agrawal-Hardin said the planning committee is eager for more information about the covenants to be released.
“I want people to know: it’s not your fault that you don't know about (the covenants) because there’s been a concentrated effort, both where we live and in the rest of our country and in the rest of our world, to cover up and deny and minimize the these histories of discrimination,” Agrawal-Hardin said.
In the future, Steinberg said he hopes the project will be able to provide community education on the history of these covenants and eventually remove the racial covenants from the deeds.
“Part of the reason we’re doing this is to illustrate that Ann Arbor thinks it's enlightened on racial justice issues, and that there’s no history of white supremacy,” Steinberg said. “But, there’s no better way, in our view, to bring that point home than to show that the very homes that thousands of people are living in have racially-restrictive covenants that prohibit people of color to live there.”
Daily Staff Reporter Shannon Stocking can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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