Until they were outlawed by the state government in 1953, some property titles across the Twin Cities and Minnesota came with language that prohibited people of color and certain ethnicities from owning or occupying the land.
The racist clauses, called racial covenants, were legally enforceable contracts written to keep homes and neighborhoods in the hands of white people. While they are no longer enforceable, they still exist. Mapping Prejudice, a project based at the University of Minnesota, has found more than 30,000 in Hennepin, Ramsey and parts of Dakota County.
It's a small percentage of the total households there today, but their existence at the time led to residential segregation or otherwise dissuaded people of color from accessing certain neighborhoods. Communities of color were limited in building generational wealth without open access to homeownership.
That legacy shaped what people envision a respectable neighborhood of single family homes to be, said Michael Corey, who leads technical work for Mapping Prejudice.
Today, 78% of white Minnesotans are homeowners and less than a third of Black Minnesotans own their home, according to 2021 Census Bureau data.
Volunteer lawyers and legal professionals have formed a coalition called Just Deeds that partners with cities to help homeowners disavow covenants on their homes. Maria Cisneros, who founded Just Deeds, discharged a covenant she found on her home in 2019, when the Minnesota Legislature passed a law enabling homeowners to do so. Cisneros said it's important for homeowners to understand how history impacted the space they occupy.
"It can also be, for an individual, a kind of act of resistance to renounce this historical practice and to acknowledge that this is still producing bad effects for communities," Cisneros said.
Are you a homeowner with a covenant on your property? Here's what to do and how to get it discharged.
How do I find out if there is a racial covenant on my property?
Residents of Hennepin, Ramsey and Dakota counties can use a tool created by the Mapping Prejudice project to find covenants on their property.
Residents in other places need to consult their county for historical property records. In most Minnesota counties, this involves fees to search and obtain documents, Cisneros said. Property owners may need to visit county offices in person to look at paper records.
Residents will need the legal description of the property to find all the documents recorded against the property.
Another option? Hire a title company. Normal title searches only go back about 40 years, so they may need special instructions, she said.
An abstract search isn't foolproof, Corey said. Even if you don't see it, it does not mean there is not a covenant, he said.
How do I get the covenant removed?
See if your city is a partner of the Just Deeds coalition. In that case, volunteers and city staff will help you discharge the covenant at no cost to you.
For abstract property, the Minnesota Legislature created a discharge form or affidavit that asks for information about the property from the last recorded deed or copy of the mortgage. Along with that, you will need a copy of the document that contains the covenant.
The discharge form must be signed in front of a notary before it is sent to the county.
If your county is a member of the Just Deeds coalition, they have waived the recording fee.
If you have Torrens or recorded property, you will need to pull a copy of the certificate of title and look at all the documents referenced to figure out if any of them contain a covenant.
If you find a covenant, send an email to the county examiner's office and asked for an examiner's directive. The examiner will either remove that document from the certificate of title or add a note explaining that the covenant is not held, Cisneros said.
Is my city a Just Deeds partner?
Just Deeds has partnered with 25 cities including Minneapolis, St. Paul, Rochester, Golden Valley, St. Louis Park, Edina and more. For a list of participating cities, go to justdeeds.org/participating-cities.
How much will the process cost?
It depends. If your city is a Just Deeds partner, fees have been waived. If not, a standard recording fee of $46, along with other associated fees for notarization, title companies or legal representation may apply.
How long will it take?
The work to discharge a covenant yourself would likely take about 10 hours, Cisneros said. Just Deeds volunteers are veterans and can move through the process much faster.
Once submitted to the county examiners office, timing will vary.
Why should I get a covenant removed?
If you find a racial covenant on your home, discharging it is not a requirement. Not everyone wants to do it, Cisneros said.
"Some people worry that if we help people discharge covenants, then people can end that process and feel great, like 'I did what I needed to do to combat racism in housing,'" Cisneros said. "Discharging a covenant is intended to be the beginning of a journey of taking action to right the historical wrongs that flow from racially restrictive covenants."
Some neighborhood groups or faith communities are getting together to learn and collectively discharge covenants in their neighborhoods. A Longfellow Community Council initiative in Minneapolis called Free the Deeds works with artists who create educational lawn signs and other materials.