Millions of real estate documents to be amended in California county

Sonoma County’s recorder’s office has confirmed that millions of its real estate documents contain racial covenants meant to restrict people of color from owning property, and the county is now taking steps to rectify this.

California has a deep history of redlining, a racist practice dating back to the 1930s that prevented anyone who wasn’t white from living or purchasing property in certain neighborhoods. In Sonoma County, these practices involve including racially restrictive language in real estate documents.

“For example, there are a lot of properties that are restricted to only those of Caucasian descent,” said Deva Marie Proto, Sonoma County’s clerk-recorder-assessor.

Proto said that the recorder’s office is searching for an outside vendor to identify keywords and phrases in documents that may indicate the presence of racially restrictive covenants so that those covenants can be redacted. Some keywords include “Caucasian,” “African,” “Asiatic” and “Mongolian,” she said.

The racial covenants in places like Sonoma County differed from redlining practices in other parts of the Bay Area, which more often involved literal lines being drawn on government maps indicating which neighborhoods were “undesirable” and therefore off-limits to mortgage lenders and insurance providers.

“Racial covenants were even more specific than that and were written into the deeds of specific properties and sometimes entire developments to prevent the sale of those properties to certain groups,” said Holden Weisman, senior director for economic equity at the Greenlining Institute, an Oakland -based nonprofit that focuses on racial and economic equity in the Bay Area.

The racial covenants being identified in Sonoma County usually existed in whiter and wealthier areas, Weisman said. Even though they differ from the practice of outlining “undesirable” areas on a map, they still fit within the broader definition of redlining as the systematic practice of excluding communities of color from economic opportunities based on race.

“One big distinction that I’ll draw between them is that these covenants are generally found in what we would see as higher-opportunity, higher-income, more white areas now, because those were the areas that worked trying to exclude communities of color and other groups from entering those communities,” Weisman said.

The use of racially restrictive covenants was deemed unenforceable by the Supreme Court in 1948 and made illegal through the Fair Housing Act of 1968. However, the long-term effects of their use — and the use of redlining practices in general — are still felt across the state.

“We are seeing the lasting effects of these practices in terms of health disparities, in terms of the racial wealth gap that persists, in terms of environmental factors that different communities face, and in terms of just the general quality of life that different communities have access to. And that is tied directly back to both redlining and to these kinds of practices, like racial covenants,” Weisman said.

In 2021, Assembly Bill 1466 passed in California, which created a process for local recorders to identify and redact racially restrictive language within real estate documents.

So far, Sonoma County is the first county in the state to begin such a wide-sweeping effort to address racially restrictive covenants.

Proto said that because of the sheer volume of documents that need to be analyzed, Sonoma County is looking for a vendor that can assist the recorder’s office in this task, potentially through an automated OCR system.

“This language is already illegal and has been deemed unenforceable, so this process will mainly be a highlighting of these restrictions,” Proto said. “It won’t actually be deleted from the original documents. We’ll record a document that has the language redacted, but the original records will remain for researchers and such.”

The recorder’s office hopes to begin the process by falling once a vendor is selected, Proto said.

“Addressing these issues head-on does help bring these things to light and helps us to start reversing these legacies or addressing them and hopefully start reversing the trends that we’ve been seeing. This is a really important step in that regard,” Weisman said.