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Living with a reminder of segregation

Racially restrictive housing covenants are still attached to some deeds, prompting one state lawmaker to act.

July 27, 2008|Jessica Garrison | Times Staff Writer

After he bought his first home, state Assemblyman Hector De La Torre uncovered a dark chapter in its history: A covenant attached to the original deed declared that the house, like all the others in his South Gate neighborhood, could be occupied by white people only. Minorities could stay there -- but only as servants.

It is a discovery that has startled any number of California homeowners. Many of the state's vast subdivisions, particularly in Los Angeles County, were once governed by restrictive racial covenants designed to enforce segregation. Those covenants have been illegal for more than half a century, but their offensive rules remain part of some deeds. Most home buyers encounter the issue when they are asked to sign a disclosure as part of the escrow process, pledging to ignore any racist language.

De La Torre (D-South Gate) decided that wasn't good enough. This year, he proposed a law that would require racially restrictive covenants -- it is estimated that there are hundreds of thousands statewide -- to be stricken from the public record at the time of the next sale.

The bill has run into stiff opposition from real estate agents, title insurance companies and county recorders who complain that it would be expensive and create a bureaucratic nightmare that could slow real estate transactions -- to little purpose since the covenants are already illegal.

The bill also has ignited a philosophical debate about the proper approach to the segregated time in California's history.

"The bill has a good heart, and so does Mr. De La Torre, but this bill is attempting to rewrite history," said Stanley Wieg, a lobbyist for the California Assn. of Realtors. "What they are trying to do is go back and change what are really artifacts of a less enlightened time."

But De La Torre and his supporters, which include the American Civil Liberties Union and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, insist that expunging the covenants is necessary, in the same way that it was necessary to get rid of signs next to segregated drinking fountains and restrooms. De La Torre said he got the idea for the legislation after reading a biography of legendary state Assembly Speaker Jesse Unruh and his push for civil rights, including fair housing. He decided he wanted to continue that legacy by getting rid of the covenants.

"It is offensive to have people, minorities, have to sign documents that denigrate them," he said, referring to the disclosures that many sign. "We need to wipe away the stain of that time in our history."

Racially restrictive covenants first came into vogue in the years after World War I as blacks began migrating in large numbers from the South to jobs in the North and West.

After some attempts at racially restrictive zoning were outlawed as unconstitutional, developers hit upon covenants -- in which buyers signed private contracts pledging not to sell their house to blacks as a condition of purchasing their home. Some covenants also excluded Jews, Italians, Russians, Muslims, Latinos and Asians from buying.

They were widely used in many areas, but particularly in Los Angeles County because so much of its housing was built in the 1920s through the '40s, the heyday of covenants.

The covenants were not enacted by the government but were private contracts between homeowners. Owners who sold their house to a black family, for example, could be sued for damages by other homeowners in the neighborhood. Black home buyers could also be sued. In one noted case, Henry and Texanna Laws bought a house on 92nd Street in South Los Angeles. At the time, Watts and other surrounding areas were all white and middle class and governed by covenants. The Laws' neighbors sued to enforce the covenants.

The Laws resisted. "The only way they will ever get me out of this house is to shoot me with a Gatling gun and throw my dead body on the other lot," Henry Laws testified in a 1944 trial. The Laws were allowed to stay in their home. In 1948, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Shelley vs. Kraemer that covenants were unenforceable.

But although it has been six decades since they were outlawed, historians and policymakers argue that covenants are no mere historical artifact.

"The fallout from these is still with us," said historian Becky Nicolaides, whose book "My Blue Heaven" examines covenants in South Gate.

Los Angeles Councilman Ed Reyes, who wants the City Council to pass a resolution supporting De La Torre's bill, said Los Angeles' unequal distribution of services can be traced back to covenants. Areas that were thick with them, such as parts of the San Fernando Valley and the Westside, tend to have more parks and historically have received more public services, Reyes said.

Opponents of De La Torre's bill make it clear that they are not endorsing the covenants or their racist legacy.

But expunging them is not so easy.

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