The Lead

Homeowners could reject racist deed restrictions under bill passed in Pa. House

By: - June 29, 2023 11:44 am

State Rep. Justin Fleming told a story on the Pennsylvania House floor of friends who bought a home and discovered the deed to the property contained an archaic and racist restriction on who could live there.

On Wednesday, the chamber passed Fleming’s bill with a 200-3 vote to allow property owners and homeowners associations to file papers with county recorders of deeds to repudiate such restrictive covenants. The bill will now be considered in the state Senate.

Although the language, which restricted occupants of a property to “caucasians” is no longer enforceable, it exists in thousands of deeds across the state and is a shameful reminder of the state’s past, Fleming said. 

“My friends were horrified and checked with their realtor and attorney and worked to ensure that the language wasn’t enforceable, and made it clear that the language didn’t reflect their values,” Fleming, D-Dauphin, said.

Fleming, whose district is 24% black, said restrictive covenants are a legacy of systemic racism that existed in policies such as redlining – in which banks refused to make loans for homes in predominantly minority neighborhoods – that created a gap in generational wealth between white and minority families that persists today.

Twenty-two states including Delaware, Maryland, and New Jersey have enacted laws to nullify restrictive covenants, Fleming said.

Although racist language cannot be erased from deeds because property records accumulate over time, Fleming’s bill would allow homeowners to file a form in their county’s records office to state that they reject and are not associated with such restrictions

Rep. Chris Rabb, D-Philadelphia, whose district is 79% black, recalled the experience of his grandfather, who bought a home in Shelbyville, Ky., in the 1940s. He did so without meeting the seller, and when the previous owner found out Rabb’s grandfather was Black, he tried to buy back the house, because it was covered by a racist deed restriction.

Ultimately, with the legal support of the NAACP, Rabb’s family received a favorable ruling that the restriction was not enforceable. Rabb said it is important for Pennsylvania lawmakers to recognize bigotry in the past, especially in the current political climate when there is a national movement to ban the teaching of that history.

“This bill is important because a government elected by the people for the people cannot function from a moral foundation that is willfully ignorant of its past misdeeds, whose vestiges infect current policies, practices, and resource allocations,” Rabb said.

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Peter Hall
Peter Hall

Peter Hall has been a journalist in Pennsylvania and New Jersey for more than 20 years, most recently covering criminal justice and legal affairs for The Morning Call in Allentown. His career at local newspapers and legal business publications has taken him from school board meetings to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and many points of interest between. He earned a degree in journalism from Susquehanna University.