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Researchers find 40,000 deeds around Puget Sound with racist restrictions – so far

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Since Washington lawmakers passed a measure in 2021 enabling review and property owner notification of recorded documents with unlawful racial restrictions, teams of researchers have documented more than 40,000 properties with racial restrictions – and those are just preliminary results for four Puget Sound area counties.

Representatives of the Racial Restrictive Covenants Project say their research is progressing but expect it will take months to uncover results for most counties. They are also actively recruiting volunteers to assist with the effort to identify and map neighborhoods with racist restrictions.

Upon passing a bill (SHB 1335) the governor signed in May 2021, the legislature provided $250,000 of initial funding for researchers at Eastern Washington University and the University of Washington to lead the effort. The bill also establishes procedures for striking illegal deed restrictions by filing Restrictive Covenant Modifications, according to the Racial Restrictive Covenants Project website at UW.

Researchers, with help from volunteers, scrutinize documents using optical character recognition (OCR) looking for racist or restrictive covenants. Such language has not been enforceable since the 1960s. Volunteers are asked to read deeds and assist in creating the database.

So far, the team at UW reports finding racial restrictions in more than 30,000 properties in King County, 4,000 properties in Pierce County, 4,000 in Snohomish County, and around 1,600 in Thurston County. Its website includes maps and descriptive information depicting the findings.

Individuals interested in volunteering are asked to register, watch a training video, register for a Zooniverse account for accessing deeds and the data entry tool, and help with transcribing. Volunteers decide their own time commitment.

James Gregory, professor of history at UW, is the director of the Racial Restrictive Covenants Project which is part of the Civil Rights and Labor History Consortium at UW. At Eastern, Dr. Larry Cebula, a public historian and professor of history, is the managing director of the project. He is also the assistant digital archivist at the Washington State Archives.

Among provisions of SHB 1335 is the addition of a new section to chapter 49.60 RCW. In part, it reads:

“The legislature finds that the existence of racial, religious, or ethnic-based property restrictions or covenants on a deed or chain of title for real property is like having a monument to racism on that property and is repugnant to the tenets of equality. Furthermore, such restrictions and covenants may cause mental anguish and tarnish a property owner’s sense of ownership in the property because the owner feels as though they have participated in a racist act themselves.

 It is the intent of the legislature that the owner, occupant, or tenant or homeowners’ association board of the property which is subject to an unlawful deed restriction or covenant pursuant to RCW 49.60.224 is entitled to have discriminatory covenants and restrictions that are contrary to public policy struck from their chain of title. The legislature has presented two ways this can be accomplished. . .”

The effort to purge racist language from deeds in Seattle and its suburbs dates to 2005 as part of the Seattle Civil Right & Labor History Project at the University of Washington. It marked the first significant effort in any major city in the U.S. and inspired similar projects at universities and in cities across the country.

Gregory intends to seek additional funding from legislators next year to ensure all the state’s records can be examined.

SHB 1335 passed by unanimous vote in the Senate and with only a single nay vote in the House.

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