Following the repeal of a racially restrictive housing covenant in Ann Arbor’s Hannah subdivision, student organization Domestic Policy Corps and community group Justice InDeed hosted a panel at the University of Michigan’s Ford School of Public Policy on Thursday discussing racial covenants in the city.
Racially restrictive deeds prohibit non-white individuals from buying or occupying land, which paved the way for racially segregated cities and towns across the country in the 20th century. Although the Supreme Court struck down the enforcement of such covenants in 1948, the restrictive language remains intact within the deeds of homes and properties throughout the United States, including Washtenaw County.
Michael J. Steinberg, Law School professor and Civil Rights Litigation Initiative (CRLI) director, opened the panel by explaining the enduring presence of racially restrictive covenants in a seemingly progressive city.
“Oftentimes in Ann Arbor, you will see (a deed) that says only people ‘wholly of the Caucasian race’ may live in or occupy this home, except for domestic servants,” Steinberg said. “Although not enforceable, they’re still part of the house. When you buy a house, you look at your closing packet and it says ‘whites only’ … It (still) causes real harm now.”
Law student Alexandria Nichols, one of CRLI’s student attorneys, discussed how CRLI had worked with Justice InDeed to repeal the restrictive covenant in Ann Arbor’s Hannah subdivision. The amendment, which received signatures from 85% of Hannah residents, was filed at the Washtenaw County Register of Deeds on Thursday morning.
“In order to repeal it, we did have to work with the community,” Nichols said. “It became a way for the community to come together and decide that this was not something that they wanted to represent anymore.”
The Hannah subdivision is the first to repeal racially restrictive covenants in Ann Arbor, according to a Thursday press release from CRLI.
Nichols went on to say she hoped other neighborhoods in the area would follow suit after seeing the Hannah subdivision’s covenant successfully repealed and said the organization was already working with another Ann Arbor subdivision.
“We’re currently working right now with another neighborhood,” Nichols said. “It’s a much bigger project, with 265 lots … compared to the 44 for Hannah. In the future, we’re hoping to develop a toolkit, so that way, communities can do this on their own.”
Justin Schell, director of the Shapiro Design Lab, discussed an ongoing project that works to identify and map all racially-restrictive covenants in Washtenaw County, noting that deeds for individual properties were much more difficult to find than those of larger communities or subdivisions. In collaboration with the University of Minnesota organization Mapping Prejudice, Justice InDeed has created a system to employ crowdsourcing and individual volunteers to identify racially restrictive language in individual deeds.
“There’s no central database where we were able to look for all of these things,” Schell said. “These are very, very hard to find on the individual level … One of the things we’re doing now is working … to create a process to identify these covenants within individual deeds … People from individual communities all over the world can (look) and say ‘Yes, that is a racial covenant.’”
Law student Laura Durand, another CRLI student attorney, discussed Michigan House Bills 4416 and 4417 — two proposed pieces of legislation that would create the Prohibited Restrictive Covenants Act if signed into law. Introduced by Rep. Yousef Rabhi, D-Ann Arbor, and Rep. Sarah Anthony, D-Lansing, this act would enable property owners to amend previously-recorded documents containing restrictions prohibited by the Fair Housing Act and prohibit the recording of any future deeds or other instruments with such restrictions.
“The community organizing is really great in these subdivisions where there is a communal restriction and a process for some percentage vote to repeal it,” Durand said. “But there are a lot of restrictive covenants … in an individual deed and there’s not (currently) an affordable and straightforward process to address those.”
Daily Staff Reporter Irena Li can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.