When Leslie Wambach was house hunting on the Midpeninsula in 2003, she thought she had discovered the perfect home in the perfect neighborhood. The house in the residential community of Ladera was surprisingly affordable compared to most others in the area, and the neighborhood was scenic, rural-feeling and close to the conveniences of neighboring Portola Valley. But then she came across something that gave her pause: The property deed contained restrictions from an earlier era prohibiting anyone who wasn't "Caucasian or white race" from owning or occupying land in the neighborhood.
Although these types of covenants were outlawed in 1948 and are no longer enforceable, its presence on her property deed raised concerns about the origins of these racial restrictions and their possible hurtful impact on residents today.
“You know, it really made my family question whether or not we should be moving to Ladera at the time,” Wambach said. “When you see something like that out of the blue, you’re just really taken aback and you really don’t know, well … why is it there? How did it get there?”
She and her family ultimately moved into the neighborhood.
“Given how hard it is to find the right home for your family around here at a price you can afford, we decided, 'OK, we're going to move forward,'" Wambach said. "But I said to myself, 'You know, I'm going to try to see at some point if we can do away with this."
In 2020, nearly two decades after moving into her home, Wambach and her neighbors petitioned the state and successfully had the racist language removed from all 534 property deeds in Ladera. This required the arduous task of collecting notarized signatures from at least two-thirds of all property owners named on the deeds, or about 700 people.
Since then, California has taken steps to remove racist language from its property deeds. In July 2022, a new state law went into effect requiring all counties to locate and redact property deeds containing racist language. The law also allows anyone who finds language in a property deed that prohibits the sale of that property to someone because of their race to require the county to remove it.
Over the past 12 months, counties across the state have been working to purge property deeds of these covenants.
San Mateo and Santa Clara counties are using optical character recognition to convert scanned or photographed text images into digital text that can be edited and searched, and Santa Clara County has teamed up with Stanford University to use AI to find and remove the racist language. Both counties are on track to review and remove racist language from all official land documents – which number in the tens of millions – by the end of 2027. In addition, some individual property owners in both counties have petitioned to have their deeds amended.
The existence of unlawful covenants is widespread on documents throughout the state because, until now, there has been no process in place to remove the outdated language. These types of deeds were pervasive enough at one time that title companies now provide a written blanket disclaimer to homebuyers that their property documents "may include" racist language if the property was recorded with any type of restrictions as to who could own the property or what changes could be made to it.
Purging racist language from property deeds
Louis Chiaramonte, assistant county clerk-recorder in Santa Clara County, said that as of the one-year anniversary of the law at the start of July, roughly six to eight residents in the county had come forward to amend their property deeds. In San Mateo County, 12 property owners had come forward to redact covenants, according to Mark Church, assessor-county clerk-recorder and chief elections officer in San Mateo County.
While the number of property owners taking the initiative to remove the language themselves has been relatively low, real estate attorney Lexi Purich Howard said this could be due in part to the way the law was written. Assembly Bill 1466, signed by Governor Gavin Newsom in September 2021 as part of a package of 31 housing bills passed by the state, requires that county recorders establish programs to identify unlawfully restrictive covenants in property records. It also requires title and escrow companies as well as real estate brokers to notify buyers about the existence of covenants in their property deeds and to assist buyers wanting to remove the language.
The law establishes guidelines for removing restrictive language, but each county has the flexibility to develop its own process on how to achieve this.
This means the effectiveness of the law relies largely on how well local jurisdictions implement the program, Purich Howard said.
“The state says, 'do this', but there's so much county independence, which is really good and necessary in some ways, and in other ways, it makes it very hard to get things done at the legislative level, because someone is always saying, ‘Well, sure, that works for Los Angeles County, but not for Del Norte,’” Purich Howard said.
Realtor Denise Welsh, a broker associate at Christie’s International Sereno in Los Altos who serves on the board of the Silicon Valley Association of Realtors, said under the new law, homebuyers must be provided with a written disclaimer that the property documents "may include" a restrictive covenant.
“So you’re told even before you read it that anything like that is supposed to be disregarded,” Welsh said. The disclaimer also informs buyers about the availability of modification forms from their county should their property deeds include such covenants.
But even with this disclaimer on deeds, Welsh said the covenants can be hard to find. Property deeds are often copied multiple times and stored on microfiche, which can be difficult to read due to print quality. As a result, many people do not bother, she said.
“The quality of the prints is lost,” she explained.
Ladera resident Sonoo Thadaney-Israni, who was among those who petitioned to have her community's property deeds amended, said she was surprised to see racist language in her property deed when she was purchasing her home in 1991, but amending the document didn't cross her mind at that time. She and her husband, who had immigrated to the U.S. from India, were more concerned about fitting into a community where they were among "a tiny minority of people of color” than in removing dated language.
“There was a racist history in the background, but I didn't really pay that much attention to it because, yes, that's the past," she said. "This is the present. We were moving forward to the future.”
Sorting through millions of documents
Processing applications from homeowners requesting that restrictive language be removed from their property deeds is just one part of an elaborate process to amend documents statewide under California's Restrictive Covenant Modification law.
For counties, removing restrictive language starts with reviewing millions of official documents.
In Santa Clara County, it means going through an estimated 24 million documents and 84 million images, including some that date back to 1850. In San Mateo County, it means reviewing 25 million documents in the official records, according to the counties' websites.
In Santa Clara County, after a document has been flagged by the review team and approved for redaction by the county counsel, it is sent back to a reviewer and recorded, which completes the process.
“We do have a very high volume (of documents),” said Chiaramonte, the clerk who is involved in Santa Clara County's process.
Working through documents from the 1920s over the past year, the office has gone through 396 books that are about 600 pages each and include over 230,000 images total, he said. The county is on pace to review 4 million documents annually for the next five years, according to the Restrictive Covenant Modification Program implementation plans outlined on its website.
Within the first several months of program, the county had found about 400 instances of discriminatory language barring minorities from buying property, the clerk-recorder's office reported at the time.
Once a document with unlawful language has been located, the turnaround time for redacting it is fairly fast, Chiaramonte said. The document can be amended and recorded in the Official Records Index within two weeks. All deeds with restrictive covenant modifications are identified in the index with the letters "RCMO." An original copy of the document also is kept for historical purposes.
Santa Clara County also has partnered with Stanford University, Chiaramonte said. Using AI technology, Stanford University is going through images from the 1920s up to the early 1970s to train datasets to help the optical character recognition (OCR) check for unlawful language in images.
The rise of racial covenants
Racially restrictive covenants first appeared in home deeds at the end of the 19th century, and were designed to stop racial, ethnic and religious minority groups from purchasing or occupying homes.
These covenants varied in scope, ranging from broadly excluding "non-Caucasian" groups to explicitly singling out specific races, nationalities, religions, and even individuals with disabilities. While many groups could be included, Black Americans were often the main target of covenants.
“Originally, restrictive covenants were part of this bigger package of restrictions that were placed on houses to sell them," said Rachel Brahinsky, associate professor of urban studies and politics at the University of San Francisco. "Things like, keep your fences under 6 feet or 4 feet, everything has to be painted a certain color, you can’t have chickens — which was often an anti-immigrant thing."
Eventually these covenants expanded to include certain types of groups of people, she explained.
In Palo Alto, housing restrictions existed in neighborhoods throughout the city. When the Southgate neighborhood was subdivided in 1923, for example, all properties carried deed restrictions specifying that no persons of African, Japanese, Chinese or Mongolian descent were to use or occupy the houses, according to "Palo Alto: A Centennial History," published in 1993 by Ward Winslow and the Palo Alto Historical Association.
The Palo Alto Chamber of Commerce in 1920 called for a “segregated district for the Oriental and colored people of the city,” although a resolution was never created, according to historical accounts.
“It was about making markets predictable. Making it so that someone could build a house and have a good chance at knowing they were going to sell it, and that meant sometimes making it the right size so that it could fit into a certain kind of expectation of the community around it. And sometimes it meant saying ‘whites only’ because that's what the community either wanted, or what the developers thought that community might want,” Brahinsky said.
That's how racial covenants were introduced to Ladera, according to Wambach.
Ladera, she explained, was initially established as a housing cooperative by the Peninsula Housing Association in the 1940s, but the association struggled to secure financing from the Federal Housing Administration to finish developing the community.
“No one would give them financing, and it is said that it is largely connected to the fact that they were refusing to include, you know, this non-white race ban,” Wambach said. “Basically the lenders were saying, ‘We’re not giving them financing.’”
In 1948, the association voted to add a quota requirement to their deeds stating that individuals who were “not of the Caucasian race” were prohibited from using or occupying residential lots if the proportion of their race in Ladera exceeded the proportion of that race to the entire population of California.
Ultimately, the quota requirement was not enough to appease investors, and the co-op sold to a developer who insisted on implementing race restrictions, Wambach said.
These covenants, along with other discriminatory housing practices like redlining and mortgage lending bias, have greatly contributed to the persistence of the racial wealth gap faced by Black Americans and other non-Caucasian groups, Brahinsky said.
One community's quest to rewrite racist housing restrictions
This racist language remained on Ladera's property deeds for decades without much discussion, until George Floyd was murdered by a Minneapolis police officer in May 2020, sparking national discussions on racial equality.
The Ladera community was horrified, and the residents wanted to confront the racial discrimination embedded in their property deeds, Wambach said.
The Ladera Community Association sent out a survey and received responses from more than 250 property owners expressing distress over the covenants.
“That's when we realized that, 'Wow, this not only is important, this is still hurting people. This is still harming new residents coming here,'” Wambach said.
At the time when Ladera residents decided to remove the racial covenants from their property deeds, there was no formal process in place.
After exploring various options, they decided to pursue a formal amendment to their property deeds. It required the efforts of many people over many weeks.
A group of residents launched a signature drive during the neighborhood’s first Pride Parade celebrating the LGBTQIA+ community in August 2021, and set up signing tables in driveways and at the recreation center.
“We wanted to make it very easy for our residents to come in and sign,” Wambach said.
The process included volunteer teams who vetted potential signers, a core signing team that was at every event, driveway hosts, a phone bank team, and people who dropped flyers on doorsteps. A notary also was present at every signing to verify the signatures.
Wambach estimated that there were 30-32 people volunteering. The volunteers also took donations from signers to cover the cost of the notary.
“It took a village,” Wambach said. “We had quite an operation going.”
The signing campaign well-exceeded the required 700 signatures, and in November 2021, Ladera residents successfully amended their property deeds to remove the racial restrictions. The amended deeds read:
“By provisions outlined in this document the Ladera Community has formally acted to remove the Race Restriction that previously comprised this subsection, and by so doing asserts that the Ladera Community supports diversity, equity, and inclusion."
Now, for property owners in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties who do find questionable language they want to purge from their deeds, the process is fairly easy.
Residents can go online and fill out a Restrictive Covenant Modification form for San Mateo County properties or Santa Clara County properties requesting an amendment to their deed. If the County Counsel verifies the existence of unlawful restrictions, the county will modify and record the documents free of charge. The review process can take up to 90 days.
Wambach is hopeful that the new bill will make it easier to find restrictive covenants in property records, but said she would like to see cooperation between counties and local communities to raise more awareness of the issue.
“You know, if there was some kind of effort of more collaboration, it might be easier than looking for needles in haystacks,” Wambach said.
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