A year and a half ago, Golden Valley’s Just Deeds project was just a twinkle in the eyes of two city staff members who knew of the racist addendums that were buried in the property title documents of their suburban homes. Now, City Attorney Maria Cisneros and Human Rights Commission Liaison Kirsten Santelices have a coalition of pro bono attorneys, title companies, county staff members and local city leaders committed to helping homeowners get the racist language renounced.
It’s a long time coming for the pair. When they embarked on a “test mission” to the Hennepin County Government Center to renounce the covenant on Santelices’ Robbinsdale home in 2019, the process took four hours, with assistance from the real estate records staff member, and racked up $46 in fees. The covenant couldn’t be found by simply plugging in a property number, because documents prior to the 1930s aren’t indexed in the county system.
In the end, the pair found what they were looking for in a handwritten document dated “June in the year of our Lord one Thousand nine hundred and twenty-nine.” Santelices, who owned the home with her spouse, a first-generation immigrant, learned that one of the property’s formal documents read “It is also understood and agreed that the above described property shall only be sold, rented or otherwise disposed of to people of the Caucasian race.” Her covenant (and anyone else’s in the state of Minnesota) hasn’t been enforceable since 1968, but the existence of the document still sent a message.
Cisneros had a similar covenant on her property but was able to discharge the covenant more easily with her legal experience. The journey with Santelices confirmed what the two had suspected: for someone without Cisneros’ experience, the process of renouncing a covenant is not easy.
The Just Deeds coalition works to simplify the process. A partnership with The University of Minnesota’s Mapping Prejudice Project helps property owners search their property to see if a racist covenant exists, and coalition members provide free legal and title services to find and discharge the covenant.
The cities Robbinsdale, New Hope, Crystal, Minnetonka, Minneapolis, Hopkins and Brooklyn Center have recently joined the program and the county has agreed to waive recording fees.
Concentrations of poverty and affluence
Brooklyn Center is the most recent city to join the program.
“These odious covenants are no longer legal nor enforceable, yet this gives the city of Brooklyn Center, the council, the opportunity to, in very strong terms, condemn this history which is a shame upon the record of our republic,” said Brooklyn Center Councilmember Dan Ryan when the council unanimously voted to join the program March 22. “I think that by making a gesture like this, it shows that symbolism is important, because it’s a statement about our values.”
In Brooklyn Center, 150 properties are estimated to have a discriminatory covenant that targets a specific race or religion. Minnetonka is estimated to have at least 530, while Minneapolis is believed to have at least 8,000. Often, certain neighborhoods are hotspots for the covenants, like Crystal’s Welcome Park, Lee Park and Valley Place neighborhoods.
At a March 30 panel discussion, Cisneros explained that covenants were a tool used by developers, attorneys and local governments to segregate neighborhoods – essentially keeping people of color out of white neighborhoods. The covenants went hand-in-hand with the practice of redlining, or the refusal to issue mortgages in or near racially mixed neighborhoods.
“As a result of all of this, some areas are concentrations of poverty, and others are concentrations of affluence,” Cisneros said. “Golden Valley, which had racially restricted covenants, is an area of concentrated wealth, and it borders north Minneapolis, which was a red-lined neighborhood and is a concentrated area of poverty. It carries right through to the present day.”
Other cities, like New Hope, are believed to have no covenants, but still wish to support the program and its role in educating the public about a not-so-distant past that has created significant inequities in the present.
Cisneros said in her research, she found minutes from separate Golden Valley council and planning commission meetings in which it was decided that racial covenants would be required in order to approve construction in the Tyrol neighborhoods.
The concept is insistent for Cisneros, whose mixed-race family would have been prohibited from purchasing her current home when it was being built due to the covenant. Renouncing a covenant may seem like a small gesture to some, but it can be especially empowering to families like hers that the covenants actively discriminated against. Santelices said that’s why the coalition is working to make the gesture as easy to do as possible.
“We know this history is embedded throughout our city and our community,” she said. “Through the work of the Just Deeds Coalition, we’ve been able to not only identify but break down those barriers to participation.”
For more information, visit justdeeds.org.