Senate Bill Aims to Create National Database of Restrictive Property Covenants - The Wall Street Journal

on wsj.com 11:07Jul, 29, 2021
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WASHINGTON—A new bill backed by a slate of Senate Democrats would allocate competitive grants to colleges and universities to analyze, digitize and map historic housing discrimination records, creating the first national database of its kind.

The focus of the effort is to research covenants attached to housing deeds, which emerged nationwide around the early 20th century, that made it harder for Black people in many cities to own property.

Sen. Tina Smith (D., Minn.), who wrote the bill, is working to get Democratic colleagues and at least some Republicans to back the effort after introducing the Mapping Housing Discrimination Act on Thursday afternoon.

“The impact of that discrimination endures today,” Ms. Smith said in an interview, adding that the point of the grants was to form a national database that can “shape the policies that we need to put in place to address this longstanding and enduring discrimination.”

Covenants that made it easier for whites to own property in Minneapolis and harder for Blacks are now banned. Photo: Nina Robinson for the Wall Street Journal

“I also have no doubt that this research will inspire policy makers and local community activists to come up with new ideas,” she said.

The bill would allocate $50 million over 10 years to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which would provide grants of varying sizes to virtually any kind of higher-learning institution that committed to join with a local jurisdiction to analyze local property records from 1850 to 1988 for the purpose of identifying restrictive language in and digitize historic deeds and other property records. Institutions could use the grants for an array of purposes, including the procurement or development of digital tools to identify racial covenants in digitized property deeds or other records, according to a draft of the bill text viewed by The Wall Street Journal.

Participants would be required to share their work with HUD, which would compile a national database that would be made publicly available. The bill also provides $7.5 million over 10 years for HUD to administer the grants and maintain the database.

Ms. Smith’s proposal follows a report from The Wall Street Journal this spring on the impact of the covenants in her home state of Minnesota. In the Minneapolis metro area, 77% of white residents own homes, compared with 25% of Black residents—a 52-percentage-point difference, larger than in any other major U.S. city, according to an analysis of census and survey data by a state agency.

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Minnesota’s legislature banned new covenants in 1953 and prohibited housing discrimination on the basis of race, religion and national origin in 1962. Earlier, the U.S. Supreme Court in 1948 ruled that the covenants were unenforceable.

Minneapolis homes once subject to covenants are more valuable today than those that weren’t, according to data from Mapping Prejudice, a project based at the University of Minnesota—the first to map every known racially restrictive covenant in a major U.S. city.

The goal, according to a senior Smith aide, would be to use that effort as a model to effectively create a nationwide mapping project. The aide said the matter is timely because a wave of homeowners—discovering discriminatory provisions on their deeds—are looking to remove the language, even though it is no longer enforceable. However, removing the language could make it harder for researchers to fully understand how widespread the provisions were and their effect on communities.

There are currently no Republican co-sponsors of the bill, though Ms. Smith said she is still seeking the endorsement of at least a few GOP colleagues, such as those with whom she works on the Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs committee. That panel’s chairman, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D., Ohio), is a co-sponsor of the bill, as are fellow progressive Sens. Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D., Mass.).

Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, the committee’s top Republican, said, “Racial discrimination in housing is a real and sad part of our nation’s history. Fortunately, our country has come a long way in undoing policies like racially restrictive covenants, which were outlawed decades ago and not enforceable. The federal government should continue to be mindful of discrimination as it crafts housing policy, but HUD is unlikely to be best situated for conducting historical research that universities can fund themselves.”

Ms. Smith said, “We’ll keep on trying” to get GOP colleagues on board.

She said she wants to spur universities to do this work, rather than the federal government itself, because universities have already proved they can develop sophisticated algorithms and leverage local relationships to do it faster than the federal government might be able to.

The senator’s aide said next steps included outreach to Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) and President Biden to earn their support.

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Write to Joshua Jamerson at joshua.jamerson+1@wsj.com

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