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San Luis Obispo Sifts Through Home Deeds for Racist Language

The California county is examining millions of documents to remove discriminatory language to adhere to a 2021 state law. So far only 19 property deeds have been modified. They came primarily from the 1940s and ‘50s.

(TNS) — When journalist Jaime Lewis moved into her home in San Luis Obispo's Anholm District in 2018, her Realtor Dawna Davies pointed out one particular detail of the property deed.

"No persons of any race other than a Caucasian race shall use or occupy any building or any lot," the deed read.

"It was horrifying," Lewis said.

Written in 1940, the restrictive property covenant serves as an ugly reminder that non-white residents were once unwelcome in many parts of San Luis Obispo, Calif. — blocked from buying homes in certain neighborhoods or even living there.

San Luis Obispo County is currently sifting through "millions of documents" to remove discriminatory language, as required by a 2021 state law.

Although it's now illegal to deny someone housing on the basis of race, housing segregation still exists in San Luis Obispo, according to Courtney Haile, founder and executive director of local advocacy group RACE Matters SLO.

"Yes, we're a small town, and we have a very low Black population in particular," Haile said. "But that doesn't make us immune."

This isn't a "special magical place that's just immune from systemic racism," she added.

California's History of Racial Segregation in Housing

The history of racial segregation in housing in California is complex — particularly in San Luis Obispo, whose minority populations have been kept "artificially low" through restrictive property covenants, local architectural historian James Papp said.

Housing covenants are legally enforceable contracts that are assigned to plots of land, which are meant to enforce specific terms on future buyers of the property. Owners who violate terms of a property covenant can risk forfeiting their property.

California's Constitution was rewritten in 1879 to prevent Chinese people from immigrating to the state and living and working in California, Papp said, which set the precedent of racial exclusion across the state.

Papp's historical evaluation for the Elbert Earle Christopher House, located on Benton Way in San Luis Obispo, contains some historic context for restrictive covenants.

Although the California Supreme Court in 1892 struck down a covenant in Ventura against renting to Chinese people, the court "consistently upheld racial covenants" from 1919 to the early 1930s, Papp's application said, finding that, while the government could not create restrictive covenants, private covenants were legal.

Racist property covenants started appearing in California in the 1890s but "really took off" in the 1920s, Papp said, as white landowners began to restrict housing in their communities.

As an example, the 1941 deed for a home Davies is selling in the Foothill area near Cal Poly explicitly bans any race other than Caucasians from owning or occupying the lot — with the exception of non-white domestic servants.

Did SLO County Restrict Housing By Race?

San Luis Obispo wasn't the only city in the region to restrict housing along racial lines.

E.G. Lewis founded the Colony of Atascadero with a 1914 deed that prevented non-white people from purchasing land there.

A 1920 Deed of Conveyance for a residential lot from the Colony Holding Corp. to J.W. and Bertha Neale specified that land in Atascadero "shall not be conveyed, transferred, demised or let to, or held, occupied, resided on, or owned by any person other than one of the white or Caucasian race."

Davies said it's difficult to tell where housing segregation was most prevalent in SLO County. She said her policy has always been to notify home buyers of the presence of racially restrictive language in their property deed, though this is not a standard practice for many Realtors.

Some San Luis Obispo neighborhoods with what she called "prestigious addresses" such as the Anholm District, Laguna Lake, Johnson Avenue, San Luis Drive, Flora Street, the Sinsheimer Park area and near Cal Poly — all built prior to 1960 — have some of the highest rates of discrimination in property covenants, Davies said.

According to Papp, the Monterey Heights, Buena Vista Avenue north of Highway 101, Mount Pleasanton Square and Fixlini neighborhoods in SLO also historically implemented restrictive property covenants.

So did Pismo Heights in Pismo Beach, he said.

This may be the result of Federal Housing Administration policy in the 1930s that incorporated the same concepts as the Home Owner's Loan Corporation's (HOLC) "residential security maps" in their mortgage lending practices, Davies said.

These HOLC maps formed the basis of redlining in the United States, a process that sought to exclude minorities from home ownership and push them out of white communities.

"The federal government was saying, 'Protect the value of these areas, enhance it for the consumers by protecting what races live there,'" Davies said.

One informal way to find where housing segregation was most prominent, Lewis said, is to look at where SLO's historically Black churches are located.

Historically white churches tend to be located closer to the heart of town, she said, while historically Black churches were "squished out into the margins of the community."

In 1948, the U.S. Supreme Court case Shelley v. Kraemer ruled that restrictive covenants violated the 14th Amendment of the Constitution, which provides all citizens with "equal protection under the laws."

While those restrictive convenants were not voided, San Luis Obispo County Clerk-Recorder's Office deputy director Melanie Foster said, the courts would no longer enforce them.

Eventually, the Fair Housing Act of 1968 outlawed racial and ethnic discrimination in housing, meaning that discriminatory language in property covenants became unlawful from that point forward.

State Law Requires Counties to Look At Property Covenants

Decades later, the state of California is still grappling with how to deal with restrictive property covenants.

In September 2021, the California State Legislature passed Assembly Bill 1466, which outlawed discriminatory language in covenants, conditions and restrictions (CCRs) in California, and required local county governments to examine their property covenants on file so that language could be removed.

AB 1466 required counties to create a plan for removing unlawful language by July 1, 2022, and report on their progress to the state Legislature by Jan. 1, 2023, and Jan. 1, 2025.

Lewis gave testimony to the state Assembly about her experience with restrictive property covenants ahead of the bill's passage.

She's also featured prominently in RACE Matters' 2021 documentary "Restrictions Apply," which illustrates San Luis Obispo County's long, difficult history with racial discrimination in housing.

"I think the problem was and is that I, as a white person, don't have to care about this," Lewis said. "No one's asking me to care about it — it's really up to me to stoke the interest in it."

To comply with AB 1466, the SLO County Clerk-Recorder's Office developed a Restrictive Covenant Modification system, Foster said, with the goal of removing discriminatory language from all documents in the county's database.

Before wording is redacted, "We have to run it by county counsel in order to determine that, yes, it is unlawful language," Foster explained. "We do have to keep the original historic document on record, but in our system, we have a way to tie them together."

County Facing 'Millions of Documents' for Review

Foster said she expects discriminatory language will be mostly found in documents from the 1920s to 1940s, when the county began keeping property records.

Many of these documents have already had discriminatory language removed, Foster said.

The county has digitally recorded copies of all of its documents published after Aug. 8, 2001, which makes checking records from the past two decades easy.

Optical character recognition software has a more difficult time deciphering older handwritten documents stored in the county's digital reel system, Foster said.

"Those ones will require manual review," Foster said. "They're super pretty cursive, but OCR systems can't read that."

On the "cheaper end," Foster said, the county will spend around $1 million on the review process.

Depending on how many records need to be re-imaged or re-scanned, that price tag could be "upwards of $3 million," she said.

The county is still early in the review process, Foster said.

So far, she said, only 19 property deeds have been found and modified; they primarily came from the 1940s and '50s.

The oldest deed to be revised came from 1919, Foster said.

How Language in Property Deeds Led to Disparity

According to Haile, who is Black, restrictive language in property covenants still contribute to disparities in San Luis Obispo County's racial makeup and where non-white people live.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 88.4 percent of SLO County's population was white in 2020, while Black or African American residents made up just 2.2 percent of the population.

Asian residents made up 4.1 percent of SLO County's population, and 23.8 percent of those living in the county identified as Hispanic or Latino.

Discriminatory language in housing deeds exacerbated racial wealth disparity in particular, Haile said, as Black families were not able to build the same generational wealth as their white counterparts without the equity from high-value homes.

Keeping housing exclusive to white home buyers meant the lion's share of homes in SLO County have stayed in the hands of the white population, Davies said, and that's kept the value of those homes from reaching minority populations earlier, when prices were comparatively lower.

"I think what the opportunity to buy property did is it gave people a chance to get in sooner," Davies said. "It gave people a foothold, so now we have people who have lots of equity and property because of their skin color."

What's The Next Step?

Haile said she's glad the state and county governments are taking steps to remove the language from property covenants.

"(It's) very jarring and can be an unwelcome reminder (when you're) going about your day or excited to buy a home, and then realizing that literally the physical place you're in once wasn't intended for you, or intended to specifically keep someone like you out," Haile said.

While removing racist language is an important symbolic step, Haile said she also wants to see the state look into providing some form of housing reparations to Black Californians to "even the playing field" of home ownership and build generational wealth.

"I think when you don't see yourself somewhere, it's hard to pack up and put roots down somewhere," Haile said.

Lewis said her racially restrictive covenant showed her "at a macro level how things could have been different."

"I started to see that if we exclude people from certain parts of the city — and wealth is passed, especially in California, through real estate," she said, "there's no possibility somebody could afford to live on my street if they have ancestors who were not allowed to live here."

She hopes the data aggregated by the county can be converted into a map that would indicate where racial segregation in housing was most common, to show "the ripple effect of these communities that have been excluded," Lewis said.

The state has "achieved a drop in the bucket" when it comes to fixing longtime disparities in racial equality, Lewis said.

"We are so smug out here sometimes, thinking that we are post-racial, and the truth is, ( California has) never been post-racial," Lewis said. " California has been just as guilty of racism and redlining as any other state in the union."

(c)2023 The Tribune (San Luis Obispo, Calif.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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