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May 2021

REALTORS-led legislation addresses racial discrimination in housing

May 5, 2021

A bill championed by Washington REALTORS® and approved nearly unanimously by legislators will help property owners purge unlawful racial covenants and deed restrictions from their property records.

In addition to amending RCW 64.06.020 and 49.60.227, the recently approved bill, HB 1335, adds a new section to chapter 49.60. It reads, in part:

"The legislature finds that the existence of racial, religious, or ethnic-based property restrictions or covenants on a deed or chain of title for real property is like having a monument to racism on that property and is repugnant to the tenets of equality. Furthermore, such restrictions and covenants may cause mental anguish and tarnish a property owner's sense of ownership in the property because the owner feels as though they have participated in a racist act themselves."

Nathan Gorton, government affairs director at Washington REALTORS®, said the bill improves the court process for eliminating such racial language if requested by the homeowner, and adds a notice to the Seller Disclosure Form so buyers and sellers are aware of the process available to remove racial covenants. He noted the bill, which applies to real estate transactions entered into on or after January 1, 2022, had the support of racial justice groups and local governments.

The bill also provides for reviews of existing recorded covenants and deed restrictions by researchers at the University of Washington (UW) and Eastern Washington University (EWU). They are charged with identifying recorded documents with the unlawful discriminatory language. Additionally, their tasks will include notifying the property owner and county auditor where the property is located and providing information to the property owner on "how such provisions can be struck pursuant to RCW 49.60.227."

Since 2005, UW students, as part of the university's Seattle Civil Rights & Labor History project, have pored through property records on microfilm and uncovered more than 20,000 documents with restrictive covenants. Egregious examples are spread throughout Seattle as well as surrounding suburbs.

UW history professor James Gregory directs a collection of online sites grouped as the Civil Rights and Labor History Consortium, which includes the Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project. Therein is a comprehensive database of restrictive covenants that includes an interactive map of neighborhoods in King County. He estimates counties statewide maintain 12 million pages of property records from 1926 when such restrictions became common. (In 1948, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled covenants restricting ownership by race as unenforceable. Housing discrimination was made illegal by Congress in 1968 with passage of the Fair Housing Law.)

HB 1335 received unanimous support by state senators and drew only one nay vote in the House. (Rep. Vicki Kraft from Vancouver was the sole dissenter.) Twenty-one legislators sponsored the bill.