Push to remove racist rules hidden in old Vermont housing policies

Published: Apr. 18, 2022 at 5:53 PM EDT
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MONTPELIER, Vt. (WCAX) - There’s a move in Montpelier to officially ban a policy that spurred housing discrimination. Lawmakers are taking aim at legal clauses on land deeds called restricted covenants.

The bill would officially ban a policy that kept people from owning homes and land based on their race or religion.

But racial justice advocates say the issue needs more time and discussion.

When you buy a house or a property, it comes with a deed.

In the 1920s and ‘30s, some deeds had caveats that banned certain groups of people from ever owning or occupying the homes.

“It explicitly forbade the home to be sold or in some cases occupied by anyone who was considered nonwhite at that time,” said Mia Watson of the Vermont Housing Finance Agency.

Watson says at least two neighborhoods in South Burlington had restrictive covenants, and a property purchased by a Supreme Court justice in the ‘70s also had a covenant.

So this week, a bill in front of Vermont lawmakers seeks to right that wrong. House Bill 511 would let landowners release the restrictive covenant from their deed, though historians would still be able to go back and view the land records to see it.

“They were in the margins, in the shadows. The stake hadn’t gone through their heart. That’s one of the points of this bill,” Burlington City Attorney Dan Richardson said.

The covenants are not causing any discrimination today. They were outlawed in the 1968 Fair Housing Act. Any existing ones on properties are not legally enforceable.

“During committee discussion, we learned that recently a House Judiciary member purchased property for the member’s home and similar language prohibiting sale or use to Jews was discovered during the title search,” said Rep. Maxine Grad, D-Moretown during a floor debate in the House of Representatives. “Because there wasn’t a process to remove or release the covenant, the member’s closing was delayed 3 weeks and the member incurred extra expense to “do the right thing” so the member’s neighborhood would be a welcoming one.”

The restrictive covenants ran parallel to the practice of redlining, where banks refused to finance homes in certain neighborhoods occupied by Black Americans.

“This should be right at the bull’s-eye of the work we are doing together,” said Mark Hughes, the executive director of the Vermont Racial Justice Alliance.

Hughes says housing policies like redlining and restrictive covenants stifled the creation and transfer of intergenerational wealth.

He says the issue is complex and needs more time, and should wait until next year when more Black, Indigenous and Vermonters of color can be a part of the conversation.

“Whereby we can in perpetuity memorialize these things that we do discover, that we have them to reflect upon so number one, we don’t make the same mistakes and number two, we can work together to correct those that we have,” Hughes said.

Experts admit identifying the scope of the problem would be a challenge. Most of Vermont’s housing was built in the ‘60s, long after these covenants were common. And property owners and town clerks would have to dig into historical records deed by deed to weed out the covenants.

Lawmakers say the proposal is part of an ongoing effort to frame public policy through the lens of equity.

“I think this will be a tool in our continuing work to end institutional and systemic racism,” said Rep. Maxine Grad, D-Moretown.

According to Grad, Virginia, Minnesota, Washington, Maryland, New Jersey, Illinois, California, Florida, Oregon, and Connecticut also have similar laws.

Racial justice will also be on the ballot this November, too. A constitutional amendment banning slavery and indentured servitude will be before voters on Nov. 4.

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