It was just one sentence, hiding in the dry, numbing language of an old deed. Just 45 words which suddenly came to life, like a ghost rising from the rot to spook the dreams of a young couple buying their first home in Southern California.
Late last summer, Christina Simon and her husband, Barry Perlstein, were excitedly reviewing the documents for their new half-million-dollar home, located in the Miracle Mile district near the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. They sat in their kitchen with their real estate agents and their baby daughter, Ryann.
Then Barry, who has a law degree, read this: “That said property shall not . . . at any time be leased, sold, devised or conveyed to, or inherited by . . . any person whose blood is not entirely that of the Caucasian race.”
The old deed barred non-whites from even living on the property, unless kept there as servants. Barry, who is Jewish, showed the offending language to his wife, who is half black.
“Oh, my God!” recalled Christina. “I might as well have seen a swastika. It gives you chills.”
Such provisions, called racially restrictive covenants, were used commonly in the first half of the 20th century to keep neighborhoods segregated. Some deeds even tried to restrict property transfers to white Christians.
In 1948, following years of legal struggles, these discriminatory conditions were ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in Shelley v. Kraemer. Until then, the old justice system (“just us”) helped enforce the racist rules, even when it meant evicting encroaching minorities from contested property at the height of the Depression.
Los Angeles was a center for the legal battle against racial covenants, which picked up steam across the country during the early 1940s. By the end of World War II, scores of black families had challenged the practice in a legal assault led by the late Loren Miller, whose name is memorialized on a Los Angeles elementary school. Celebrity plaintiffs, like black actresses Hattie McDaniel and Ethel Waters, helped draw publicity to the cause.
Their ultimate victory planted the seed for white flight to suburbs like the San Fernando Valley and Orange County. Still, some stubborn segregationists tried to get around the ruling by making minorities feel unwelcome.
Christina, the new mother and homeowner, was also thinking of her daughter’s future when she discovered that racist paragraph in her deed.
“I don’t ever want her to see something like this,” Christina told me when I met her for lunch Friday near her public affairs office in downtown Los Angeles. “I don’t want her to inherit this legacy.”
The next question: How do you delete it?
At first, the real estate agents mistakenly told the couple they must get signatures from all 300 neighbors in their original subdivision, created in 1922 by G. Allan Hancock, for whom the adjacent neighborhood of exclusive mansions is named. Until recently, believe it or not, an individual homeowner had no means to clean up an old deed of its lingering racist language.
In 1999, the year Christina and Barry were married, the state Legislature took steps to help people purge racist terms from property deeds. The law now requires homeowners associations to make the changes without approval of the owners.
Last fall, just as Christina and Barry were settling into their new home, California finally enacted a procedure for individuals to change their own deeds by applying to the Department of Fair Employment and Housing. Once an amendment gets approval, the homeowner can then cross out the offending phrases and refile the sanitized deed. For more information, call (213) 439-6703 or go to https://www.dfeh.ca.gov.
Christina wonders why the burden falls on her. “Frankly,” she told me, “I think the state should be beating down my door to remove the language from my house, not vice versa.”
Christina and Barry, both 36, have started the application. But she doubts many others will go to the trouble. And she’s right. So far, fewer than 10 people statewide have applied to make changes.
Many may think the issue is moot, because housing discrimination is illegal anyway. Many may not even know their deeds contain the hidden hate clauses.
Christina says she can’t ignore the dead language, which would haunt her new home.
“It would be this constant reminder that I still don’t belong in my own house, in my own neighborhood, in my own city where I was raised.”
Agustin Gurza’s column appears Tuesdays and Saturdays. Readers can reach Gurza at (714) 966-7712 or firstname.lastname@example.org