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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: South Hill homeowner files lawsuit to remove racist restrictions in property documents


Alex May, a 34-year-old software developer who grew up in Spokane, moved back to town last fall with his wife and family.

They bought a home in the Comstock neighborhood. When they were signing the documents to close the sale, they came across the covenant attached to the home’s deed – and their signing agent pointed out that one of the covenants provisions was no longer legally valid: a whites-only provision.

No longer binding, but right there in black and white nonetheless.

“No race or nationality other than the white race shall use or occupy any building on any lot,” it reads, “except that this covenant shall not prevent occupancy by domestic servants of a different race or nationality employed by an owner or tenant.”

May said, “It just didn’t feel right, that being in there.”

May, with the help of University Legal Assistance at Gonzaga University, is apparently the first homeowner in the state to ask a court to remove racist language from a covenant attached to his home. The covenant, which was executed for homes sold in a Comstock addition, is just one of several such racist agreements that still exist in Spokane County property records, remants of the housing discrimination that was common here and around the country in the middle of the 20th century.

A former Eastern Washington University graduate student, Logan Camporeale, unearthed and documented the covenants as part of his culminating research project in public history. Now, a third-year law student at Gonzaga, Ryan Dalessi, is helping carry the effort into court – filing a complaint on behalf of May in Spokane County Superior Court last week, seeking to have the racist language removed from the covenant.

The suit asks that the language be removed from the covenant for May’s home under a state law that empowers a court to remove public records or provisions of such records that are void.

“What we’re asking for is an eraser – erasing the (racist) language that’s been put into these covenants,” said Dalessi.

If the suit is successful, it could provide a template for other homeowners to follow suit. For Camporeale, who spent a vast amount of time and effort gathering the information and sharing it with the community, too, that’s an exciting prospect.

“That would be cool,” he said. “That would be so, so cool.”

Camporeale has graduated and now works at the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture. What he found in his research, in neighborhood after neighborhood across the county, were local remnants of the national practices of housing discrimination in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s that helped create and sustain racially segregated neighborhoods.

More than 30 covenants existed for subdivisions and plats around the county, legally attached to the deeds of homes on the South Hill, the North Side and Spokane Valley. Some outlaw all nonwhites – apart from servants – and some are more specific, such as a covenant prohibiting the “Mongolian, Malay, or Ethiopian races.”

There weren’t Jim Crow laws here, per se, but discriminatory practices in lending, housing and real estate helped create and sustain a racially segregated city, as they helped create and sustain segregation across the nation.

Camporeale’s work was the subject of a column in December 2016. At the time, there were questions about what, if anything, property owners could do about the covenants. The Supreme Court has declared them unconstitutional and unenforceable, yet they were still there in the legal documents attached to the properties – still among the papers to be signed at the closing of a sale.

For a homeowner to remove the covenant would require the time, effort and expense of going to court to ask a judge to do it.

After Camporeale’s work was made public, Rick Eichstaedt, the executive director of the Center for Justice and director of the environmental law clinic with GU’s University Legal Assistance program, decided to offer homeowners that help.

“We kind of put out feelers” on social media, he said.

Those feelers didn’t produce a wave of homeowners who wanted to go to the trouble of removing the covenant language. But May reached out after coming across the language at his own signing last fall, and he’s also hopeful that others might follow suit.

May’s home is in the Comstock neighborhood, in a subdivision that was developed by W.H. Cowles Jr., a member of the family that also owns The Spokesman-Review. In the December 2016 column, Betsy Cowles, the head of the Cowles Co., said in a statement that it wasn’t clear to her what exact involvement William Cowles Jr. had in the developments, but “What is very clear is that such racial segregation is offensive and in no way represents our company or family values. Today, we are proud of the work we have done and will continue to do in our companies and community to celebrate diversity and honor differences.”

Such covenants were common across the country in the middle of the 20th century, and researchers have documented them in other cities from Seattle to Los Angeles to Chicago. It appears that May’s suit is the first effort by a homeowner in Washington to seek to have the language removed, so to some degree it could serve as a test case for how others might approach it. It’s not clear, for example, how the language could be removed, though it seems that some sort of redaction or blacking-out would be most likely.

“We’re really excited,” Dalessi said. “We’re hoping this will open the door for other clients who have these convenants.”

Some might argue it’s unnecessary to remove the language from the covenants. They’re already void, after all, and they’re a part of the historical record. County auditor Vicky Dalton expressed concerns about that when Camporeale’s research first became public, and the county may resist the lawsuit on those grounds.

To May, the historical value of the records, if there is any, is outweighed by the effect it might have on minority home buyers.

“How would I feel if I were a person of color,” he asked. “I think they know the legacy. I don’t think it needs to be in their face when they’re buying a home.”

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