Rules allowing racial discrimination exist for some California properties

Old rules prohibiting people of certain races from living in some California properties, while not enforceable, are shocking potential buyers.

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The practice of barring certain races from buying homes was common in the U.S. during the 1930s and 1940s, The Mercury News reported. While the rules can't be enforced, the newspaper reports they can't be erased, either; so they remain on the books in many Bay Area California homes.

“I was shocked … I wouldn’t even be able to buy the property if that was still in place,” said Yan Heim, a Chinese-American real estate agent whose Orinda, California, home carried the rule.

Rules of this nature are usually found in the “covenants, conditions and restrictions” listed in a home’s preliminary title report, according to The Mercury News. For example, a 1939 Redwood City home recently put up for sale includes a rule saying, “no person of any race other than the Caucasian or white race” may use or occupy the property, except for “domestic servants of a different race domiciled with an owner or tenant.”

These rules are now prohibited by federal and state fair housing laws. Most racial covenants also come with a disclaimer saying they are void, which state law requires.

Racially restrictive covenants -- along with discriminatory zoning laws and other policies -- contributed to the wealth gap between whites and people of color in the Bay Area, the Mercury News reported.

Some homeowners are taking measures to remove the language from their property documents. Eileen Bissen, 38, bought a Concord, California, home in 2010 that contains a covenant barring “persons not wholly of the white Caucasian race” from living there. Bissen worked with the Contra Costa County Recorder’s Office to remove the rule, and her request was approved.

“It felt good to quite literally draw a line through the overtly racist language in the restrictive covenant,” she said. “The language was blatantly wrong and doesn’t represent who we are as a community.”

Others, like Oakland-based real estate and land use lawyer Zack Wasserman, believe the covenants should remain as a reminder of the past.

“This is a much broader political, philosophical, social issue -- and that is whether it is appropriate to erase history,” Wasserman said.

More information can be found at the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing's page on restrictive covenants here:

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