by Jaclyn Cosgrove

Los Angeles Times

The requirements to live on the San Fernando Valley lots were clear in 1915.

Any building, including the roof, must have two coats of paint. The fences “shall be” stained, painted or whitewashed.

Wedged just after a prohibition on liquor sales, the land record for the subdivision of the Los Angeles Farming and Milling Co. Rancho demanded that “no part of said premises shall ever at any time be sold, conveyed, leased or rented to any person of African, Chinese or Japanese descent.”

Racially restrictive covenants like this were commonplace in Los Angeles County in the early 1900s, ending only after the U.S. Supreme Court and federal law barred their enforcement. But if you buy a house in L.A. County today built before 1968, you’d probably still see the language in your land records. But that’s soon to change.

In response to a new state law, L.A. County has hired a company for about $8 million to redact racially restrictive covenant language from millions of county records. The process is expected to take at least seven years and begins this year.

“It’s part of a stain on our history, of discrimination and racism,” said Dean C. Logan, Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk for L.A. County. “I think for me and for the county, this represents a form of recognition.”

Logan said the company, Wisconsin-based Extract Systems, and the county will work together to search and review the entire archive, dating back to 1850.

An estimated 130 million documents — about 460 million pages — will be examined, Logan said.

About 90 million of those documents are in a digital format, which will allow its contractor to use automation to look for the racist language. But the other 40 million records — dating from 1850 to 1976 — are recorded only on paper, books or microfilm rolls. It will require a “human operator and use of technology” to redact the racist language from those documents, Logan said.

Workers will start with the most recent documents, those in digital format, and work backward. The original documents will still be available for inspection, but the version seen by property owners will have a black bar over the language, Logan said.

The seven-year timeline is based not only on workload but also on how much money the county brings in from a new $2 document recording fee, which the state law allows to be charged until 2027, unless extended.

For years, homeowners could request that the county remove a racially restrictive covenant from their records at no fee. That process remains available.

“Carrying forward that language in the legal description into future recorded documents almost is a passive acceptance of that, and those restrictive covenants were outlawed, and they have no useful purpose in documents going forward in the chain of title,” Logan said. “I think the impact of doing this, it removes that language, but it doesn’t remove it from history.”

L.A. County Supervisor Holly J. Mitchell, who introduced a bill removing “lynching” from California law during her time in the state Senate, said regardless of its enforceability, language in laws matters.

After her grandmother died, Mitchell was sorting through her family’s paperwork, hounding her great aunt to write a will to protect the home in Exposition Park she bought decades ago.

Mitchell pulled out the deed and was floored when she saw language barring Black people from living in the home that her family had lived in for years.

“Reading through it, I thought, ‘Oh my God, this is what I read about,’” Mitchell said.

Historian Laura Redford, who completed her doctoral work at UCLA on racially restrictive covenants in L.A. County, said the earliest she found real estate agents or developers using restrictive covenants in the county was 1908 — such as developer Lawrence B. Burck, who advertised ‘‘iron clad race restrictions’’ in two tracts about 20 blocks south of Exposition Park.

Redford, a visiting assistant professor at Brigham Young University, found in her research that by 1939, 47% of L.A. County residential neighborhoods “had restrictive covenants that forbade certain racial groups from those communities,” according to her thesis.

Conceptually, restrictive covenants exist to outline what owners are allowed to do with their property, like stable their horses or other typical restrictions, Redford said.

But real estate agents and developers used them to not only exclude people of color but also to dictate the class of residents by specifying the minimum amount residents must spend to build, and even the size of the home.

As a historian, Redford said she fears that removing the restrictive covenant language from land records won’t likely cause history to repeat itself in terms of such blatant racial restrictions, but it does raise concerns about whether people will grasp how those policies also separated people by class.

Redford said the Supreme Court, in its 1948 Shelley vs. Kraemer decision, ruled that states upholding racially restrictive covenants violated the 14th Amendment, and the 1968 Fair Housing Act outlawed the racist policy — but that the issues around class in housing law remain.

“We continue to segregate by class — we do it by selling at price points … saying, ‘This is a community of single-family homes valued from this much to this much,’ and we can’t put an apartment building in it because it will destroy the value of single-family homes,” Redford said. “We have done less good of a job as a society at addressing the class segregation that we continue to perpetuate.”

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