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Racist restrictions in old home deeds across Washington state will get expanded scrutiny

Heidi Groover, The Seattle Times on

Published in Home and Consumer News

Marlene Smick remembers sitting in the back seat of her parents' car in 1958 as the family spotted an open house sign in Seward Park. Smick's father, a second-generation Japanese-American who had been incarcerated during World War II, rolled down the window to ask about the property.

"The guy, a builder, said, 'You're welcome to come look, but I'm sorry I can't sell to you,'" Smick said. "It was whites only."

For many families across the region and the state, memories of housing discrimination and segregation are still clear. In some cases, that racism is still part of the public record.

Racial covenants prohibited people of certain races, nationalities and religions from living in certain neighborhoods until housing discrimination was outlawed in the 1960s. The language hasn't been legally enforceable in decades, but remains in old property records.

University of Washington researchers have investigated such covenants before, finding language affecting about 20,000 properties in King County. But they believe many more could still be on the books, said UW history professor James Gregory, who has led the research.

A bill state lawmakers passed this month directs UW and Eastern Washington University to search for more covenants and notify property owners when their homes are affected. Each university will get $125,000 a year for two years to fund the research. UW researchers will comb through records in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties. EWU will search in 20 counties east of the Cascades.

 

"Most folks really just aren't aware this kind of language exists in their documents," said Rep. Javier Valdez, a Democrat who represents northeast Seattle and sponsored the bill, which was backed by Realtor lobbyists. "Once they become aware, they want to do something about it."

The language is painful, even if it's no longer enforceable, Smick said.

"That was a real hurtful time in our history and so I just think it should be taken off so we don't have to be reminded of it," she said.

The new legislation restarts the project of uncovering and raising awareness of the racist language in a region that may think of itself as exempt from the the kind of segregation that was common in the American South, but where housing discrimination was pervasive. The effort also raises questions about whether policymakers and the real estate industry should be doing more to address the lasting effects of housing discrimination that reach far beyond the covenants.

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