Suburban cities spearhead effort to remove racial covenants

By: - June 17, 2021 7:00 am

An example of a Hennepin County property deed with a racial covenant. Courtesy: Mapping Prejudice.

A lawyer by trade, when Maria Cisneros and her husband, Miguel, went to buy their house in Golden Valley five years ago, she read all of the house’s documentation more thoroughly than most would. That’s when she found some unexpected and disturbing language in the home’s property deed: A racial covenant stipulating that only “caucasians” were allowed to live on the property, save for domestic servants of other races. Jewish people were also subject to racial covenants, at least through the 1930’s.

The Cisneroses were shocked by what they found. While covenants like these have been illegal in Minnesota since 1962 and nationally since the passing of the Fair Housing Act in 1968, they remain in the paperwork of many properties across the Twin Cities metro area and beyond. While unenforceable, the covenant made Miguel wonder if he and his family would truly be welcome there. Maria began to understand why the west metro suburbs she grew up in look the way that they do. Golden Valley is still 84% white today.

The duo decided to buy the house anyway, but when the state Legislature passed a measure that allows homeowners to discharge racial covenants on their properties in June 2019, Cisneros did so almost immediately. “I drafted my own form because the county hadn’t come up with their own form yet,” said Cisneros, who is also the city attorney for Golden Valley. 

Also in 2019, Kirsten Santelices, now Golden Valley’s deputy city manager, tried to do the same for her property in Robbinsdale. Cisneros and Santelices ended up spending a full day accomplishing the task, having to make several trips to various government offices to get the job done. It was a hassle: “We had to go down to the Hennepin County Government Center downtown, pay to park, and go to the public real estate research terminals because we needed access to court records,” Cisneros recalls.

She knew there had to be a better way, so she brought an idea to the city’s Human Rights Commission: City attorneys would help residents discharge racial covenants on their properties. The commission agreed that the work fit into their mission to “promote and nourish a safe, respectful, and welcoming community.”

It became the Just Deeds project — an effort to provide free covenant discharge services to homeowners.

The city created a simple, one page, fill-in intake form to streamline the process for homeowners. “I can figure this out, I’m an attorney so I can dabble in real estate stuff, but for the average person this is a lot of effort to go through,” Cisneros said. “Wouldn’t it be cool to recruit some attorney friends in the city so the Human Rights Commission can offer pro bono legal services to help residents discharge racial covenants?”

That’s exactly what started happening. In late 2019 and early 2020, city attorneys started volunteering their time to go over the forms and help residents discharge racial covenants. But determining whether or not a racial covenant existed in the piles and piles of paperwork attached to houses was difficult and time consuming.

As luck would have it, this is when Cisneros and company became aware of the Mapping Prejudice work that Kirsten Delegard, a historian, was doing at the University of Minnesota to map out all of the properties in Minneapolis and other cities in Hennepin County that have racial covenants on their properties. 

Cisneros began spreading the Just Deeds word through the Minnesota Association of City Attorneys, and cities like Robbinsdale, Minneapolis, Crystal, and more have come on board. New Hope did so simply out of solidarity because the city never had any racial covenants. “Our participation really was just to show support for other cities and the program,” said Jeff Alger, the city’s community development specialist.

Today, there are 11 participating cities reaching from Robbinsdale to Rochester, a number that is expected to grow as Mapping Prejudice expands its work into mapping covenants in Ramsey County in the coming months. To date, Just Deeds has been responsible for discharging 101 racial covenants in cities across the metro area with a backlog of 1,600 or so more to go.

Kiarra Zackery, Golden Valley’s first ever diversity, equity, and inclusion manager, said Mapping Prejudice has been instrumental to the effort. Zackery also cites another founding coalition partner, Edina Realty Title, as being critical because they bring the skills and access necessary to execute much of the work. Hennepin County is waiving filing fees to make the process free.

Just Deeds is now doing the laborious outreach work to become better known, giving presentations to community groups like the League of Women Voters and providing continuing education credits on the topic of racial covenants for city attorneys and other lawyer groups. 

This might seem symbolic considering that the covenants have been unenforceable since the 1960’s, but Zackery argues that the opposite is true.

A group of undergraduate students at St. Olaf College researched and documented the lingering impacts of racial covenants for Just Deeds’ educational efforts. The group outlined how the practice was the backbone of red lining and the disparities it created in housing but also income, health, transportation and air quality. 

Cisneros says the discharge process “is symbolic in some ways, but it is experiential learning when you go through a process that impacts the property you own. You have a different connection with the topic than if you were just reading about it.”

For Zackery, Just Deeds is just the beginning of her and the City of Golden Valley’s larger work to dismantle systemic racism.

“When we think about the tangibility of looking at your property deed, seeing that language that says that folks that are not of this certain race cannot live here and we see all the ways that BIPOC folks have had to overcome tremendous barriers … it’s a really great entry point for folks to start understanding what systemic racism is,” Zackery said. “They can fill out a paper and start having conversations and building grassroots consciousness regarding systemic racism and have the agency to do something about it.”

To find out if you may have a racial covenant on your home and can get it removed, go here

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Cinnamon Janzer
Cinnamon Janzer

Cinnamon Janzer is a Minneapolis-based freelance journalist dedicated to covering lesser-told stories across Middle America.