The owner of a Spokane home is appealing a May court ruling that found Spokane County does not have the authority to remove racist provisions from home deeds and titles, even if they’re illegal and void.
On Friday, Alex May, who lives in the Comstock neighborhood on the South Hill, filed his notice with the state appellate court, saying he wants to completely remove the “racially discriminatory provision in a property covenant recorded in 1953” from his home’s title and deed.
The provision on May’s home says “no race or nationality other than the white race shall use or occupy any building on any lot.”
May’s argument is the same he made earlier this year to Spokane County Superior Court Senior Court Commissioner Steven Grovdahl, who instead sided with the county auditor, Vicki Dalton. Dalton argued that she is “specifically prohibited” from altering records under state law, and that her responsibility is to preserve the “archival, historical” chain of records attached to all properties.
May, who grew up in Spokane and left for college before returning in his mid-30s, said the offensive words have no place in a document that is still used today, which he and his wife, Sasha, found in the home’s legal documents when they were finalizing the sale of their Comstock neighborhood home in September 2017.
May’s home was built in 1954 as part of a new housing development near Comstock Park. The underlying property that carries the covenant currently has 37 homes on it — all of which still carry the invalid and unenforceable racist restrictions. The neighborhood has eight historic subdivisions with similar restrictions, which contain 474 homes that still have the racist covenants attached to their deeds.
In 1948, the Supreme Court ruled that racist covenants could not be enforced. Twenty years later, in 1968, Congress passed the Fair Housing Act, which outlawed housing discrimination based on “race, color, religion, or national origin.” The following year, a Washington state law basically reaffirmed the federal law, which made the covenants void.
State law states that the “owner, occupant, or tenant of the property” that has a voided covenant “may cause the provision to be stricken from the public records.” A 1987 law says that the “continued existence of these covenants and restrictions is repugnant to many property owners and diminishes the free enjoyment of their property.” The “intent” of the law was to “allow property owners to remove all remnants of discrimination from their deeds.”
The law allows a court to “issue an order striking the void provisions from the public records and eliminating the void provisions from the title or lease of the property.” The law has been updated numerous times over the years, most recently in 2018, when lawmakers amended it to allow a county auditor to act without a court order.
Dalton, who helped write the recent rules, called the racist covenant “absolutely offensive,” but said it has to remain part of the record.
May is represented by Rick Eichstaedt, a local lawyer and Gonzaga University professor who runs a university law clinic, and some of Eichstaedt’s students.