Leaders across Oregon have taken great pains in recent years to acknowledge the state’s racist past and dismantle tools of institutional racism in real estate. But the history lingers — maybe even in the documents of your home.

Racially restrictive covenants came to prominence in the 1920s. As neighborhoods were created in cities across the country, housing developers wanted to keep their communities exclusive by keeping out certain ethnic and religious groups.

So they drafted covenants such as one real estate agent Jennifer Lundstrom recently found on a home in Milwaukie: “No Negros, Chinese, or Japanese shall own or occupy property in this neighborhood unless they are a worker or a servant.”

Lundstrom was appalled. 

“It made me want to do something,” she said.

Historic housing documents included restrictive language such as this, barring certain ethnic and religious groups from neighborhoods.

Historic housing documents included restrictive language such as this, barring certain ethnic and religious groups from neighborhoods.

Illustration by MacGregor Campbell/OPB

So she went on an Oregon Realtors Facebook page and asked whether anyone else had seen this kind of discriminatory covenant. Plenty had, but their opinions varied on what could be done.

Comments included: “This is an insurmountable task and don’t even waste your time;” and “racist language in there should remain so that we can be reminded of our painful past; ” and finally, “It’s gonna have to be something that the entire country figures out how to deal with, and there’s no database that’s collecting these CC and R’s, so it’s just impossible.”

CC and R stands for covenants, conditions and restrictions. They are found in the title report of houses and lay out rules for your home such as what color you can paint your house or how long you can let your front lawn grow before you absolutely must mow it.

While there is no national database of racially restrictive covenants, Greta Smith is working to create a local one. She’s a graduate student in Portland State University’s public history program and is working to create a comprehensive map of where people of color were kept out for the Portland Housing Bureau.

At her kitchen table one day recently, she flipped through historic newspaper ads and other archival documents.

“This one is from the Sunday Oregonian,” she said. “May 24, 1908. ‘Restricted neighborhood city view park, bargain, $2,600.’”

Smith has only identified five deeds on her own through historical documents and looking through public records, which can get really expensive. She said the most success she’s had comes from working with area homeowners who send in their deeds. She’s found restrictive language in real estate documents across the city.

Greta Smith is studying public history at Portland State University and creating a database of restrictive covenants in the Portland region.

Greta Smith is studying public history at Portland State University and creating a database of restrictive covenants in the Portland region.

Erica Morrison/OPB

Smith said the Portland Housing Bureau “can use the findings to do an analysis of how restrictive covenants have served to present an impediment to housing for people of color over the long term.” (She’s eager for more help. If you’d like to share your deed, email pdxhst@pdx.edu.)

For homeowners who do find racially restrictive covenants in the fine print of their property, Oregon recently made it easier to take the language out. Rep. Julie Fahey, D-West Eugene, introduced a bill during the Legislature’s recent session that allows homeowners to bypass hiring a lawyer to navigate the complicated procedure of removing racist language. Instead, they can now send certified mail requesting the removal to anyone with a financial or legal interest in their home, such as lien holders.

Fahey represents Lane County. When she and her husband bought their home, she discovered racist language in their deed.

“Even though the language is not enforceable or legal right now, it stays with the deed into perpetuity,” she said. “I thought about 20, 30, 50 years from now — the next owners are still going to have to see and and still going to have to deal with this language.”

The Fair Housing Act made such covenants unenforceable. It was part of the sweeping Civil Rights Act of 1968, and the housing portion protects buyers and renters from discrimination based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, disability and the presence of children.

But the impact of institutional racism can’t be erased as easily as the language.

“A lot of people’s parents and grandparents weren’t able to buy houses because of being discriminated against,” said Christopher Guinn III, who owns Dwell Real Estate in Northeast Portland and says he got into real estate to help black people become homeowners.

“Homeowners give birth to homeowners,” Guinn said.

In the United States, owning a home is the most common way to accumulate generational wealth — the stuff you pass down to your children and grandchildren. Restrictive deeds and covenants have been null for decades, but their legacy still excludes some families of color from the American dream.

Sharing America: A Public Radio Collaboration

Erica Morrison is part of the public radio collaborative “Sharing America,” covering the intersection of race, identity and culture. This new initiative, funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, includes reporters in the Northwest and Hartford, Connecticut, St. Louis and Kansas City. You can find more “Sharing America” coverage here.