A push by some Golden Valley city staff members to strike racist language from property deeds is spreading across the Twin Cities metro as residents reckon with the history of banning people of color from buying homes in white neighborhoods.
The Just Deeds Project pairs homeowners with pro bono attorneys to discharge racial covenants, the language embedded in deeds beginning in 1910 that segregated neighborhoods throughout the Twin Cities metro. Though unenforceable after a landmark 1948 Supreme Court ruling, the language of racial covenants remains in thousands of deeds.
Maria Cisneros, Golden Valley city attorney, said when she purchased her home with her husband, Miguel, about five years ago, she discovered its racial covenant and realized her family wouldn't have been allowed to live there when covenants were enforceable because her husband is Venezuelan.
"I didn't really realize how prevalent it is in our area," she said. "Of course now when I started looking into it, it's totally obvious all these hallmarks of it still exist today."
In June 2019, when the Legislature passed a measure that allows homeowners to file a document to disavow a racial covenant, Cisneros did so without hesitation. She said it was cathartic, "like taking the power into your own hands to reject what was put on this property … a poignant way to connect personally with this history and what it means for us."
She went to the city's Human Rights Commission suggesting Golden Valley lead a project based on this, thinking she and her lawyer friends could help people with the process. Kirsten Santelices, staff liaison of the commission, jumped on board immediately and the two went to discharge the covenant on her Robbinsdale home, where she lives with her husband, Brent, a Filipino immigrant.
"I'm not a lawyer so I can't do the legal research," Santelices said, "but what can I as an individual do to help dismantle these racist systems?"
Cisneros said after the killing of George Floyd she went to the Minnesota Association of City Attorneys with the question: "How else are we addressing all of the systemic racism in these systems that we work for?" The association decided to provide pro bono legal help for homeowners and connected with Mapping Prejudice, a project through the University of Minnesota that has uncovered 30,000 racial covenants in Hennepin County. The association then looped in area Realtors to form the Just Deeds coalition.
Since then, the project has expanded to Robbinsdale, Crystal, New Hope, Minnetonka, and most recently Minneapolis. The project has received requests from more than 200 people and has discharged more than 100 racial covenants.
"I absolutely think there will be a lot of interest in the project," said Corrine Heine, Minnetonka city attorney. "I really applaud Golden Valley for initiating this and getting the ball rolling."
Heine said Mapping Prejudice has identified at least 530 covenants in Minnetonka. She said while the core city and first-ring suburbs were all developed during the time period of racial covenants, the covenants stretch out to second-ring suburbs like Minnetonka. She expects more cities will soon be joining the coalition.
Cisneros said Just Deeds also has educational resources for homeowners to understand the history and how it has shaped the way we live today rooted in the impact of segregated housing patterns.
"That has affected all sorts of things like access to health care, access to health food, access to parks and public open spaces, policing patterns," she said. "Everything that a city touches is connected to this history."
Covenants' lasting impacts
Kiarra Zackery, Golden Valley's equity and inclusion manager, purchased her first home in north Minneapolis amid the pandemic and three days after Floyd was killed.
"Moving here, everything was shut down and there was civil unrest, and finding that I had very limited access to basic things," she said. "I had to go back to my dad's neighborhood and use his Walgreens to get cleaning supplies."
Zackery saw her new North Side neighborhood rally to support one another with donated supplies because stores were closed or burned down. But in her dad's predominantly white Hale neighborhood in south Minneapolis, where she grew up, the Target reopened and people were out walking their dogs.
She said she really had to reckon with living in that duality.
"This community only had each other, where other communities were just able to go back to their normal lives," she said. "A year later, there still isn't a pharmacy."
Her home doesn't have a racial covenant, but she's working to discharge the covenant on her dad's house. She noted Just Deeds (JustDeeds.org) is about more than carrying out that process — and open to anyone whether their city participates or not. She said city attorneys can use the knowledge of racial covenants to question zoning codes, and Realtors can think intentionally about where they are showing homes and to whom.
"You want people to have agency and understand that collective, individual actions can tear down racist structures," she said.
Kim Hyatt • 612-673-4751