An advocate for mapping the history of racial covenants in property deeds says the work is as much about current policies and attitudes as it is about past prejudices.
“The practice of racially restrictive covenants is a clear example of systemic racism,” Golden Valley City Attorney Maria Cisneros said during an online forum on the topic hosted by In the City for Good, a Rochester grassroots community organization.
Golden Valley is a founding partner of Just Deeds, an organization that is partnering with the City of Rochester to map and reject covenants that once restricted property ownership based on race and sometimes religion.
While the covenants were ruled unenforceable in 1948 and prohibited in Minnesota in 1952, Cisneros said their impact lingers.
“A lot of the attitudes that were created by these practices exist and show up in a lot of different processes that we go through today,” she said. “They aren’t remarkable to us, because we are used to them.”
She said Minneapolis saw the impact when it worked to get rid of single-family zoning in its comprehensive plan.
She said people opposed to the change pointed to an anticipated reduction of property values, increased crime, and traffic concerns if larger housing options were able to mix with single-family homes.
“Those things are not necessarily true,” she said. “We accept them as true when we hear them, because we hear them all the time.”
She said such arguments against new development and policy changes frequently have roots in past efforts sought to keep neighborhoods exclusive.
“We can’t get to the root of that and change that until we start talking about it honestly,” she said, adding that people need to start questioning the resistance to changing neighborhoods.
Rochester resident Phil Wheeler, a former director of the Rochester-Olmsted County Planning Department, said that’s why he’s helping lead the charge to map local covenants, which have been found throughout Rochester, with a concentration in the Historic Southwest Neighborhood, but others existing along Marion Road in Southeast Rochester and near Jefferson Elementary School in the city’s northeast quadrant.
He said the covenants are found in clusters, so if one is found, there are likely more in the area.
“These covenants had no value at all, unless they involved a neighborhood,” he said. “You didn’t become an exclusive house, you had to have the whole neighborhood.”
He said similar attitudes are seen in current-day policies that set minimum prices for development and minimum home sizes, as well as loan and home sales practices.
Mapping the Rochester covenants, Cisneros said, could reveal trends and outcomes that started in the early 20th century and still exist.
Once the covenants are found, a 2019 Minnesota law allows homeowners to officially reject them. The process does not remove them from a property deed, but adds paperwork denouncing them.
In Rochester, staff from the city attorney’s office will lead the effort to recruit and train others to help people file the needed paperwork to reject the covenants, said Assistant City Attorney Tran Nguyen.
“We have a lot of resources,” she said, pointing to attorneys and others throughout the city who have indicated a desire to help. “We just need to get them trained.”
Jamar Hardy, a Minneapolis-based real estate agent working with Just Deeds, said the effort offers homeowners the chance to have a personal reckoning with a troubling history.
“I think it’s about uncovering the history of the land we stand on,” he said.
At the same time, he said it can send a communitywide message.
“It matters, because people matter,” he said.
Wheeler said he also sees the effort as a first step toward a larger existing goal.
“You can’t have an inclusive community without inclusive neighborhoods,” he said.