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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Title company offering free service to defy historic racist property restrictions in Spokane County

Alex May, pictured in this file photo from 2019, asked the courts to remove a racist covenant that was filed when his home was first developed and sold in the 1950s. The Washington Supreme Court rejected his request.  (TYLER TJOMSLAND/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Like numerous places in the country, many neighborhoods in Spokane once discriminated against certain demographics to prevent them from owning or residing on specific properties.

This was accomplished by enforcing restrictive covenants, or language included in a property’s title reports that outlines what kind of people can purchase it. And those covenants can still be found in properties’ paperwork today.

But Vista Title & Escrow is helping property buyers change their titles to void the discriminatory covenants.

“You can’t erase history, but I think that’s right for property owners to be able to take a stand,” said Anthony Carollo, Vista’s CEO. “Here’s an opportunity to improve Spokane one property at a time.”

Covenants and restrictions can include the color of a home, how long grass can grow to, or to disallow the construction of a basement, Carollo said.

But the restrictions based on race were ruled unenforceable by the United States Supreme Court in 1948. Around 20 years later, Washington followed suit and passed a law that banned covenants discriminating on the basis of race, color, religion or national origin and ruling they are void, meaning that they have no legal effect, according to county records.

Though the covenants are already null, the state then revised the law in 2018 to give property owners the right to affirmatively declare restrictions as void by filing a restrictive covenant modification.

There is no other state with a similar program, according to Carollo.

His company announced Thursday that it will complete the covenant modification on behalf of property owners.

During property sale transactions, Vista will comb through the title documents and perform the modification free of charge. Carollo knows of no other company in the state offering the service.

“And Washington is unique that they created a form so that property owners can do the modification on their own,” he said. “So, I suppose we’re probably the only one in the entire country doing this.”

The effort does not erase the covenants, however, as they are part of the public record.

This was affirmed in a lawsuit against Spokane County brought by Alex May, a Spokane homeowner who asked the county to remove a covenant on his South Hill home that reads “no race or nationality other than the white race shall use or occupy any building on any lot,” according to Spokesman-Review reported.

Spokane County Auditor Vicky Dalton said at the time that it was not in her authority to remove it, according to Spokesman-Review records.

The case reached the state Supreme Court, which ruled in 2022 in favor of the county that racial covenants should remain in the public record.

“We must ensure that future generations have access to these documents because, although the covenants are morally repugnant, they are part of a documented history of disenfranchisement of a people,” Justice G. Helen Whitener wrote in the unanimous opinion at the time. “It is our history.”

Instead, a restrictive covenant modification filed with the County Auditor’s office allows property owners to double down and affirmatively declare the discriminatory covenants that are written in a property’s title report as void and unenforceable, according to a Vista release.

But there is a bit of homework for those wishing to record a modification, Carollo said.

According to the county website, a property owner must first obtain information about the property including its legal description, both full and abbreviated, of the property and its tax parcel number.

Then owners must complete the restrictive covenant modification form. The document must then be notarized, signed, and taken to the county auditor to be recorded.

“Most property owners probably don’t know their parcel number, legal description, or how to fill out the form – there’s all kinds of hurdles,” he said. “But we’re the experts, so we take care of all that at no additional cost.”

When a buyer closes escrow or is getting title insurance with Vista or its affiliate, Stevens County Title & Escrow, its workers examine title documents to find discriminatory restrictions. If they are discovered, the buyer will be notified and given the option to opt for a restrictive covenant modification.

Carollo and his team will ensure the form is filled out properly, add it to the closing paperwork, then file the modification with the rest of the recording packet, according to a company release.

Properties across Spokane and Spokane Valley have discriminatory restrictions associated with them, Carollo said.

“We’re just starting to collate a list of subdivisions that we have found covenants in, whether it be the recorded deed or sometimes even on a plat map itself to impact all the homes in that division,” he said. “We have not mapped them, but so far, we’ve found 20-30 subdivisions with these covenants.”

Though his companies have found restrictions in title documents of properties all over the area, Carollo has noticed a concentration in the Shadle area.

“I think covenants were prevalent post-World War II when that neighborhood was being developed,” he said. “That is why that neighborhood has it more, I think.”

To find out if a restrictive covenant is associated with your property, the county website said to first check the land title records maintained by county auditors. These records are public and free to view, but fees are charged for copies.

The second source is the owner’s title insurance policy, which is typically issued at the same time the property is purchased.