When Ann Arbor resident Anne Hiller first moved to ‘Tree City’ from the San Francisco Bay Area in 2004, she was looking forward to settling in the Wildwood Park subdivision, a scenic suburban neighborhood surrounded by nature on the city’s west side. Before she was about to close the deal on her house, however, Hiller noticed that her deed contained an archaic clause — a racially restrictive covenant that read “No portion of the land herein described should be occupied by persons other than the Caucasian race, except as servants or guests.”
Though Hiller does not identify as a person of Color, she wrote in an email to The Michigan Daily that seeing the covenant appalled her. When she asked for the line to be removed from the deed, Hiller claimed she was told that wouldn’t be possible because it would require a large majority of homeowners across the neighborhood to vote to eliminate the covenant from all deeds in the subdivision. She would have to either sign the document as it was or pass on the house.
“(I) asked to strike the sentence during the actual closing appointment,” Hiller wrote. “The title company officer explained the deed covenants and why it wasn’t possible, and then said ‘but it’s okay because the language isn’t enforceable.’ It was a stain on the day. I didn’t like signing my name to that language, but my only alternative was to walk away from the house.”
An effort led by a small but mighty coalition of advocates, “Welcoming Neighborhood,” has recently changed that. By the end of 2022, Welcoming Neighborhood helped Wildwood Park pass an amendment eliminating the racially restrictive covenants in their neighborhood. Hiller, who ended up joining the coalition, personally worked to collect and verify resident signatures so that the covenants could be permanently eliminated.
Hiller told The Daily that any changes to the Wildwood Park deed required approval from homeowners representing two-thirds of the property values comprising the entire neighborhood. Though collecting the signatures was a challenge, Hiller said it paid off with the eventual repealment of the covenants.
“Right out of the gate, we attained 60% of the (signature) threshold during a 2-hour ‘cider and donuts kick-off,’” Hiller wrote. “(We) exceeded the two-thirds threshold in just 6 weeks.”
Wildwood Park was one of 13 neighborhoods developed in the 1910s and 1920s on the west side of Ann Arbor that instituted racially restrictive policies. During that time, Catherine Street and Miller Avenue became a demographic fault line separating predominantly-white neighborhoods like Arborview and Wildwood from neighborhoods like Waterhill and Kerrytown, which were historically the heart of the Black community in Ann Arbor.
While restrictive policies were deemed unenforceable across the nation by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1948, the restrictive covenants and discrimination in home sales continued to plague the Ann Arbor housing market until the city passed a fair housing ordinance in 1963. While the ordinance barred new development from instituting racially restrictive policies it did not provide a way to remove existing racially restrictive language from existing deeds. That’s why the covenants, though unenforceable, still exist in housing deeds like Hiller’s in more than 120 neighborhoods across Washtenaw County, according to research conducted by Justice InDeed, a University of Michigan-based collaborative project aiming to map where the covenants still exist in the county.
Ann Arbor’s Hannah subdivision became the first neighborhood in the state of Michigan to repeal the racially restrictive language in all of the deeds to properties in the neighborhood in February 2022. In an interview with The Daily, Tom Crawford, a resident of Wildwood Park, which is located right next to Hannah subdivision, said the work of Justice InDeed educated him about the remnants of racial discrimination in Wildwood deeds and motivated him to organize community events to advocate for the repealment of racially restrictive covenants in his neighborhood.
His effort soon attracted five other volunteers, including Hiller, who said she is still troubled by the language in her deed even after 18 years, when she first bought her house in Wildwood Park. Since its founding, though, Welcoming Neighborhood has pursued activism in a variety of ways, Crawford said.
“We had a member who is more engaged online and helped contact neighbors,” Crawford said. “We had two members who were willing to go door to door to get the (word) out to the neighbors. … My wife was the lead on getting many of (the signing) events organized and made sure they were interesting. Everyone was super helpful.”
Crawford said he wants Wildwood Park to follow in the footsteps of the Hannah subdivision and modify the language of their deeds in the same way. The Welcoming Neighborhood group drafted an amendment to the deed to the entire neighborhood which would eliminate the racially restrictive covenants. They also invited Wildwood Park residents to sign their names on the amendment to endorse the proposed changes so that Welcoming Neighborhood could send the amended deed to Washtenaw County Register of Deeds for approval.
“We modeled our revised language off of (the Hannah subdivision’s),” Crawford said. “We not only eliminate the offensive language, but then also replace it with inclusive language. I also ran it by an attorney to make sure there is no (legal) issue with it.”
The impact of eliminating the covenants in Wildwood Park was almost fourfold what it was in the Hannah neighborhood. The Hannah subdivision has 44 homes, whereas Wildwood has more than 160. Lindsay Bryan-Podvin, a biracial social worker and homeowner in Wildwood Park, told The Daily she appreciated the efforts of the Welcoming Neighborhood to address the legacy of racism in their neighborhood.
“A lot of us want to be very progressive and inclusive,” Bryan-Podvin said. “But then we do things like this, myself included, where we buy houses and ignore the language that is exclusive. So to me, it’s taking a step in the right direction and actually practicing what we preach.”
As the Welcoming Neighborhood has worked to spread awareness and replace racially restrictive language in Wildwood Park, the state legislature in Michigan also passed House Bill 4416 in December 2022 to make it easier for neighborhoods to repeal racially restrictive covenants. Nina Gerdes, a third-year U-M Law School student and a research assistant for Justice InDeed, told The Daily the legislation provides a reliable toolkit for amending the language of deeds and could empower more residents to initiate the repeal process.
“The law provides tools such as a form that people can fill out and plug in relevant language,” Gerdes said. “It enables people who might have not otherwise had either the power or the tools to repeal their covenants, such as renters. Through this legislation, individuals have the ability to ask owners of the property, or ask their condo associations to repeal the covenants.”
In an email to The Daily, Crawford said he is currently advising residents in three other Ann Arbor neighborhoods with restrictive covenants on the processes to repeal them. Crawford said he hopes homeowners throughout Ann Arbor will continue to participate in the process and affirm their stances on inclusion.
“It is more than changing a legal document that is already unenforceable,” Crawford wrote. “The point is to establish and encourage real neighborhood inclusivity by including affirmative & inclusive language and connecting neighbors with this shared value. It’s through community building efforts like this that neighborhoods truly become more connected and welcoming.”
Daily Staff Reporter Chen Lyu can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.