Marlene Smick remembers sitting in the back seat of her parents’ car in 1958 as the family spotted an open house sign in Seward Park. Smick’s father, a second-generation Japanese-American who had been incarcerated during World War II, rolled down the window to ask about the property.
“The guy, a builder, said, ‘You’re welcome to come look, but I’m sorry I can’t sell to you,’” Smick said. “It was whites only.”
For many families across the region and the state, memories of housing discrimination and segregation are still clear. In some cases, that racism is still part of the public record.
Racial covenants prohibited people of certain races, nationalities and religions from living in certain neighborhoods until housing discrimination was outlawed in the 1960s. The language hasn’t been legally enforceable in decades, but remains in old property records.
University of Washington researchers have investigated such covenants before, finding language affecting about 20,000 properties in King County. But they believe many more could still be on the books, said UW history professor James Gregory, who has led the research.
A bill state lawmakers passed this month directs UW and Eastern Washington University to search for more covenants and notify property owners when their homes are affected. Each university will get $125,000 a year for two years to fund the research. UW researchers will comb through records in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties. EWU will search in 20 counties east of the Cascades.
“Most folks really just aren’t aware this kind of language exists in their documents,” said Rep. Javier Valdez, a Democrat who represents northeast Seattle and sponsored the bill, which was backed by Realtor lobbyists. “Once they become aware, they want to do something about it.”
The language is painful, even if it’s no longer enforceable, Smick said.
“That was a real hurtful time in our history and so I just think it should be taken off so we don’t have to be reminded of it,” she said.
The new legislation restarts the project of uncovering and raising awareness of the racist language in a region that may think of itself as exempt from the the kind of segregation that was common in the American South, but where housing discrimination was pervasive. The effort also raises questions about whether policymakers and the real estate industry should be doing more to address the lasting effects of housing discrimination that reach far beyond the covenants.
Racial restrictions were common across Seattle outside the Central District and Chinatown International District, effectively gating off subdivisions from Jefferson Park to West Seattle, Capitol Hill and Sand Point — plus Bellevue, Mercer Island, Auburn, Burien and other suburbs, according to UW research. At least a dozen neighborhoods excluded Jewish people, researchers found.
Real estate agents were also regularly unwilling to show homes to people of color in predominantly white neighborhoods.
In the mid-1950s, Larry Gossett’s father hoped to buy a home in West Seattle near his job at the post office. Two Realtors made clear he wasn’t welcome: The first told him he’d be “run out of the business” for selling to a Black family in West Seattle, said Gossett, a civil rights activist and former County Council member. The other showed Gossett’s father three homes, all in the Central Area.
Across the country, that type of housing discrimination has led to ongoing wealth and homeownership gaps.
Homes in predominantly white neighborhoods have appreciated faster than comparable homes in communities of color. A recent Redfin analysis found the average home in a primarily Black neighborhood is worth $46,000 less than a comparable home in a white neighborhood with similar amenities. (The analysis did not include Seattle because of a lack of sufficient data on primarily Black neighborhoods, according to Redfin.)
In the wake of the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer and mass protests, local real estate agents began to discuss racism in the industry. But Seattle’s wealth and homeownership gap persists.
In the Seattle metro area, Zillow estimates that Black-owned homes are valued 16% lower than white-owned homes, based on an analysis comparing home values and census data on race by neighborhood.
Rocky Flowers, a Coldwell Banker Bain agent in Seattle, has occasionally encountered racist covenant language while reviewing title reports and found that his mostly white clients weren’t aware the covenants were used in Seattle.
Finding the language is “a sting,” said Flowers, who is Black, “but it’s also a reminder.” Flowers said he tries to use the language as a “teaching tool” to educate clients and friends.
“Personally, I don’t think they should be taken out,” Flowers said of the covenants. “Obviously they’re not enforceable, but it is a reminder — especially in Seattle — to people buying and gentrifying neighborhoods. It’s a reminder to them of the history, why they are able to buy a house, why their family has equity and $100,000 to give them a loan or $50,000, why their family has generational wealth and they are able to gentrify these neighborhoods.”
Covenants were one instrument of segregation across the Pacific Northwest, which together with social pressure and acts of violence kept African Americans, Asian Americans, Jews and other people out of whole swaths of Seattle, Gregory said.
“The idea that segregation was mild in places like Seattle is really wrong,” he said.
Gossett said he learned about his family’s experience when he was a student at the University of Washington in the 1960s, as he realized most of his fellow students “had no idea Seattle was a segregated town.”
“The covenants allowed whites in the North and the Northwest to perceive themselves as more civilized because they weren’t as overtly racist,” Gossett said. But the documents “were just as effective” at segregating the city, he said.
Property owners also used such covenants in Spokane, according to research by Logan Camporeale, who started searching for the restrictions as a graduate student at Eastern Washington University in 2016 and now works as a historian.
Camporeale found nearly 40 covenants, which he estimates affect between 2,500 and 4,000 properties. He expects to find more outside Spokane as part of the new research. While covenants were most likely to show up in developed areas with subdivisions and additions, student researchers will soon search even the state’s most rural Eastern Washington counties, Camporeale said.
Property owners should have the option of striking the language if they want to, he said. “If it was a physical monument, they would of course be able to remove it.”
Digging up the covenants is a tedious and time-intensive process because the language can show up virtually anywhere in the decades-old property records. Counties are in various stages of digitizing their records, with some only available on microfilm and in bound volumes. Gregory estimates counties across Washington maintain 12 million pages of property records from the years when the restrictions were common.
Today, homeowners can seek a court judgment or an administrative filing to address the language. The court process replaces the original language with a redacted version and stores the original in an archive. The administrative process, known as a restrictive covenant modification, adds the modification document to the record and essentially amounts to a formal “disavowal” of the language by the property owner, Gregory said. Neither act fully erases the historical record, which will continue to be accessible in the state archives for research.
The modification process is designed to be easier than going to court, but uptake has been somewhat slow: King County has recorded eight modifications since the modification became available in 2019. Pierce County has recorded 94, though most were in one subdivision, according to online records. Snohomish County has recorded three.
Starting next year, information about striking the covenants will be added to a form homesellers statewide must provide to buyers during a sale, unless the buyer waives their right to receive the disclosure form.
When David and Emily Sibley bought their 1940s ranch-style home in Walla Walla in late 2018, they received a list of a dozen covenants as part of the title documents. Near the bottom of the list, between a rule about building new structures on the lot and another about fences and hedges, item No. 10 prohibited anyone of “any race other than the White or Caucasian Race” except for “domestic servants of a different race domiciled with an owner or tenant.”
“We couldn’t help but be aware that we’re both white people of enough means to buy a house,” something that is not possible for everyone, David said. “We can’t begin to imagine what it would be like to be person of color, even if you knew it was unenforceable.”
The couple wanted to remove the language, but a lawyer said they would need approvals from everyone else in the neighborhood whose homes were originally part of the plat, some of whom didn’t live on site. This year, as they prepared to sell the house, they found information online about restrictive covenant modifications and filed for one. “We still have responsibility to do what we can within our means to change it or to register a protest to it,” Emily said.
Discriminatory covenants may not always show up in a home’s title report. Even when they do, homebuyers may skip over parts of a lengthy report.
“We should be looking for this stuff and reporting it when we see it,” said Kyle Bush, a John L. Scott broker in Bellevue, who said he was shocked when he recently encountered a covenant for the first time while reviewing records for a home in South Seattle. John L. Scott offers appointments online to help homeowners file the modification documents. Windermere also offers information about the process and how to get the modification document notarized for free.
Others are looking for bigger change. “Why aren’t we doing something to create down payment assistance programs for people who lost out on generational wealth?” said Coldwell Banker Bain broker Chavi Hohm.
The research into covenants has unearthed some familiar names.
Among the restrictions on the books in Spokane was a covenant signed in 1953 by William Cowles Jr., a real estate developer and then-publisher of the local newspaper, The Spokesman-Review, Camporeale found. In Seattle, according to UW research, the namesake of the John L. Scott brokerage, attempted to offer money to a Black surgeon and his family to keep them from moving into a neighborhood near Seward Park in 1960.
J. Lennox Scott, Scott’s grandson and the current CEO of John L. Scott said in an interview he had apologized to the family. In Spokane, the Cowles family later denounced that covenant’s language as offensive, the newspaper reported in 2019.
In the upcoming search, Camporeale expects to find more prominent names. “People who mattered in Spokane were responsible for putting these documents in place. … These people who had power perpetrated segregation. It’s a good reminder we need to be critical as we look back.”
How to modify a restrictive covenant
Since covenants can show up in various places among old property records, finding them can take some digging.
If you’re not sure whether your property is covered by a covenant, check your title insurance policy or ask a title company to search for covenants affecting your property. To search for the records yourself, start by finding the parcel number and legal description of your property. (In King County, use the county assessor’s online parcel map.) With those details, seek more information from your county auditor, either by searching records online or calling the auditor’s office to ask for any covenants, codes or restrictions covering your property. In Seattle, try UW’s database of covenants.
Once you know that your property has an illegal covenant, you can file a restrictive covenant modification, a form available from your county auditor or recorder. You will need the recording number and date of the original document containing the covenant, the names of all current owners of the property, the legal description of the property and the tax parcel number.
The document must be notarized before filing it at the recorder’s office. While there may be a charge for the notary, there is no fee to record the document.