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White property owners only? Racist covenants remain on books in Utah, but now there’s a path to fix them

Utah’s 2021 law follows similar moves in states like Washington, Florida, Maryland

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Val Johnson, left, and his children, Eric Johnson and Jenny Hogsett, remove cabinets from the home they are remodeling in the St. Mary’s neighborhood of Salt Lake City on Thursday, April 1, 2021. Johnson said he was shocked when a title company sent him covenants with racial restrictions for a house in Salt Lake City’s East Bench neighborhood last year.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Before building a new home in Holladay, Steve Tachiki glanced over his property records to make sure the changes wouldn’t get him into trouble.

On the second page of a housing covenant, he found a different sort of requirement, barring anyone “other than the caucasian race” from owning a home on the property. It was a relic from more than 70 years ago, when racial discrimination was expressly permitted in Utah.

“It’s kind of one of those things where if you’re having a dinner party, it’s something you kind of pull out and say, ‘Check this out,’” said Tachicki, who is Japanese American.

Such provisions aren’t uncommon in the Beehive State. They are sometimes written into property deeds, contained in the attached covenants regulating the look of a house or yard, and included in plat maps on file with the county recorder.

A new state law makes it easier for homeowners and neighborhood associations to fix those provisions at no cost and without needing to hire an attorney.

“People can get that racist language out of their property records if they so choose,” said the measure’s sponsor, Rep. Mike Winder, R-West Valley City. “There just wasn’t a clear mechanism, let alone an easy mechanism, until this law came along.”

Under the change set to take effect in May, homeowners can bring a notarized statement to their county recorder’s office and have it filed with their property records, explicitly asserting the discriminatory portions are void.

Even if homeowners don’t go through the process, the law emphasizes that any written expressions in the records of preference based on race, skin color, and other factors including religion, sex, sexual orientation or gender identity are null.

HB347, modeled on a similar change in Washington state, sailed through the Utah Legislature earlier this year. Florida and Maryland have taken similar steps to make it easier for homeowners.

Winder said he hadn’t heard of any records that have restricted LGBTQ ownership in Utah, “but in the case there were, now we’re covered.” His measure includes those protections in order to mirror Washington’s, he said, along with categories of disability and income.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1948 that covenants limiting ownership by race are unenforceable, and a 1968 federal housing act banned discrimination.

Realtor Val Johnson, who buys and renovates homes, said he was shocked when a title company sent him covenants with racial restrictions for a house in Salt Lake City’s East Bench neighborhood last year.

“It almost killed the deal,” he said. “It was disturbing.”

Johnson, who is white, said he didn’t want to become involved in a neighborhood like that, but was reassured when he found out others who live there don’t agree with the provision, either.

He became the first homeowner to file the paperwork Friday, ahead of the May 15 start date when records can be adjusted.

“It’s a good step forward,” he said afterward.

The listing agent in that deal, Adam Kirkham, recalls explaining that the arcane wording isn’t reflective of the community and carries no weight today.

“It just felt like not a great answer,” Kirkham said. “It didn’t feel like we were doing our part to avoid language that could be hurtful to somebody or exclusionary.” 

He’s also treasurer of the Utah Association of Realtors, and said he was happy to learn the measure was on a list of real estate-related bills before the Legislature. The organization backed the effort, along with homeowner associations and title companies.

“We think it’s a good move for everybody,” Kirkham said.

Some Utahns of minority ethnic and racial backgrounds continued to face discrimination from builders even after the Supreme Court’s ruling, noted Sen. Jani Iwamoto, D-Holladay, the assistant minority whip who sponsored the bill in the Senate.

“It’s not that all too distant,” Iwamoto said.

In another change, the new law also allows neighborhood associations to weed out the restrictions by a vote of their boards. Typically, any changes to the covenants require approval from at least two-thirds of homeowners.

That’s no small feat, said Taylor Jones, an attorney with the Utah Condominium and Homeowners Association.

“It’s difficult to get two-thirds of the owners to agree on anything even if things aren’t controversial, just because it’s hard to to get people to respond and to vote and to take interest in the amendment.”

Jones, who did not have a role in shaping the bill, said he’s never seen an association try to enforce any discriminatory language.

Still, he said, “there’s really no downside” to the change.

That’s how Millcreek physician Kaerli Christensen pitched a legislative fix to Winder. When she bought her home in 2013, Christensen scoured the documents and spotted the racist requirements. They made her feel sick, she said, and she put them out of her mind.

Last year, her thoughts returned to the covenant amid a national reckoning on racial injustice following the death of George Floyd in Minnesota. Christensen said she began to consider how she could wield her own privilege as a white woman to make things better. She and a friend, Alicia Poldino, wrote to Winder and cheered the bill’s passage in March.

“Instead of ignoring things and just trying to brush them under the rug, I’d like to be an impetus for positive change where I can,” Christensen said.

Tachiki, in Holladay, provided a copy of the covenant in his property records, which stipulates that people of color can live there only if they work for the homeowner. He’s not going to seek out the new record, however.

“I want to be able to say, this is how it was,” he said, especially in the event that someone denies that discriminatory housing policies have existed. “People try to rewrite history all the time.”