New Texas law helps Houston neighbors remove language of racist acts

A group of neighbors in Oak Forest, in northwest Houston, spent more than two years and 100 hours of pro bono attorneys trying to remove a line from their neighborhood rules that many of them found offensive.

Their act restrictions, dating back to 1946, said, “None of the lots… shall be used, owned or occupied by anyone other than white.”

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Despite their efforts, the neighbors still could not overcome the obstacles necessary to Delete this phrase from their neighborhood bylaws. Then, in 2021, the Texas Legislature passed a law to facilitate the removal of illegal and discriminatory racial restrictions that were common in planned communities and other developments during the first half of the 20th century.

In late June, after the Harris County Clerk’s Office had systems in place to facilitate the new process, Oak Forest resident Jonathan Lowe tried again. This time, completing the paperwork took five minutes, he said. Two weeks later, a county judge ordered the language removed.

These racist restrictions have been unenforceable since they were banned in a series of court rulings between 1948 and 1969. However, experts say they have contributed to housing disparities today, and still remain in many documents of older associations. Following the death of George Floyd, a growing number of people across the country have sought ways to address inequality in their communities. At least five states, including Texas, have sought ways to make it easier to remove discriminatory rules from act restrictions. Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick called the bill to remove racist language “one of my priority bills.”

Ashley Cavazos, one of the residents pushing to change restrictions on acts in Oak Forest, said she was thrilled to be successful with part of the neighborhood, but felt shaken by the amount of work it took before the law changed.

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Nonetheless, she says, success “gives hope in a world where sometimes you feel hopeless.”

Ashley Cavazos clings to her two puppies as she chats with her daughter, Juliana, outside their Oak Forest home on Thursday, July 21, 2022.Annie Mulligan/Contributor

Ashley Cavazos holds redacted copies of the Oak Forest Deed restrictions on Thursday, July 21, 2022.
Ashley Cavazos holds redacted copies of the Oak Forest Deed restrictions on Thursday, July 21, 2022.
Annie Mulligan/Contributor
The Cavazos family outside their Oak Forest home on Thursday, July 21, 2022.
The Cavazos family outside their Oak Forest home on Thursday, July 21, 2022.
Annie Mulligan/Contributor

Ashley Cavazos holds redacted copies of the Oak Forest Deed restrictions on Thursday, July 21, 2022. / The Cavazos family outside their Oak Forest home on Thursday, July 21, 2022. (Annie Mulligan/Contributor)

A long story

Learning that an Oak Forest subdivision had become the first in Harris County to successfully remove its Caucasians-only clause without going through the arduous process of knocking on doors and collecting signatures, Kimberly Barnes felt mixed emotions .

“Damn, it was about time,” said Barnes, president of the Texas Association of Real Estate Brokers, a real estate association that has long worked to increase homeownership. His group and its sister group, the Houston Black Real Estate Association, were founded in the 1940s because the local association of realtors in Houston did not allow black realtors to become members.

Although discriminatory language has been unenforceable for decades, the impact of racial restrictions is still being felt today, she said. Almost all communities protected by deed restrictions in the early 20th century excluded minorities, pushing black and Hispanic residents into unrestricted neighborhoods. As a result, many types of property prohibited in a restricted-deed community – such as industrial sites, liquor stores, multi-family homes – could appear at any time in communities where minorities have settled, often destabilizing the neighborhood or causing sudden price fluctuations. .

“We all know in this country that wealth comes through home ownership,” she explained. “So if you relegate me to the less desirable parts of town…that leads directly to the wealth gap that we’re seeing now.”

For example, Oak Forest resident Ashley Jackson remembers learning that her aunt bought in Homestead because black people at the time couldn’t buy in Oak Forest. If the aunt had been allowed to buy in Oak Forest decades ago, today she would have much more wealth in the form of the equity in her property. In 2021, the median sale price on the Oak Forest side where deed restrictions were changed was $455,000, according to the Houston Association of Realtors. In Northside, which includes Homestead, it was $211,000.

When the Houston Chronicle pulled records from Harris County’s oldest subdivisions based on median house age, the 15 oldest deed restrictions originally contained language excluding minorities, although some have since removed the wording. Discriminatory housing practices at the time were pervasive not just among neighborhoods and real estate agents. When the US government encouraged homeownership during the Great Depression by insuring a 30-year mortgage, its program excluded minorities.

The Federal Housing Authority’s underwriting manual in the 1930s stated that “discordant racial groups” could cause “instability and a decline in values.” The FHA has recommended that developers with federally backed construction loans use deed restrictions to restrict the races of residents.

Because the government has actively encouraged developers to ban minorities, many real estate professionals and inner city residents insist that it is vital that the government step in to help weed them out.

Texas Representative Gene Wu, who represents parts of West Houston including Sharpstown, Chinatown and Westchase, began pushing for change about six years ago when he received a call from a group of Asian American investors. They were investigating a commercial property on the outskirts of Chinatown when they learned that a restriction banned signage in Asian languages ​​on the property.

Wu introduced a bill in 2019 to help remove the unconstitutional restrictions, but his bill never passed. However, by the next legislative session, the The reckoning for George Floyd had begun and the issue grew.

Michael and Ashley Cavazos play football in front of their Oak Forest home on Thursday July 21, 2022.
Michael and Ashley Cavazos play football in front of their Oak Forest home on Thursday July 21, 2022.Annie Mulligan/Contributor

The new process

How to remove racist language from act restrictions in your neighborhood

1. Email your county clerk’s office to have your act restriction reviewed by a judge to propose removal of discriminatory provisions. Harris County property owners can contact [email protected] and the county will provide a template for filing a judicial review application and notarized affidavit. (The pattern is also found in Section 5.0261 of the Texas Property Code.)

2. Once the forms are submitted, a judge will review the application. Harris County reviews are before the county civil court judges. If the judge finds the language to be discriminatory, it will be removed from the document. The redaction will apply to every home in the area that shares those deed restrictions, Harris County Clerk Teneshia Hudspeth said.

For more information on the history of a subdivision, you can visit the Archives Archives, which maintains unredacted copies of the original documents.

Changing a neighborhood’s deed restrictions can take months and cost thousands of dollars in legal fees. But the new law allows residents to bypass that process when it comes to discriminatory language. Instead, they can simply fill out a form and drop it off at the county clerk’s office.

The department is growing a database of subdivisions with act restrictions that may contain discriminatory provisions and will track those who have had that language removed, Harris County Clerk Teneshia Hudspeth said in a written statement. So far, several Harris County neighborhoods have asked to review their restrictions on acts. The Oak Forest Chapter was the first to file its formal motion for review and have the wording redacted.

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Now, when someone goes to the county clerk’s office and pulls the deed restrictions for that section of Oak Forest, a black box will cover the unconstitutional language – a small change, but one that many have long sought.

“It’s just a relief,” said Lowe, the Oak Forest resident who filed the paperwork. “That it’s finally over.”

On the one hand, Jackson wished the law had gone even further and created a new document that omitted the discriminatory language, instead of keeping it “just covered up.” On the other hand, she didn’t want to completely erase an uncomfortable past.

“It’s a double-edged sword,” she said. “Because you don’t want it in there…but there’s a whole thing with the whitewashing story and acting like things didn’t happen. And you don’t want people to forget it happened because you don’t want history to repeat itself.

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