Ann Arbor subdivision becomes 1st in Michigan to repeal racist property covenant

By: - February 25, 2022 5:55 am

CLRI student attorney Nina Gerdes at the Register of Deeds office, Feb. 24, 2022 | Laina G. Stebbins

With papers filed and a $30 fee exchanged at the Register of Deeds Office, Ann Arbor’s Hannah subdivision on Thursday became what is thought to be Michigan’s first neighborhood to repeal an outdated whites-only housing policy that is baked into many property agreements both across the state and nationwide.

“[N]o person of any race other than the Caucasian race shall use or occupy” any home in the subdivision except for “domestic servants,” states the west Ann Arbor subdivision’s racially restrictive covenant that was imposed by the developer in 1947.

Enforceable racial covenants in property deeds became commonplace after the U.S. Supreme Court validated their use in 1926. Another federal ruling 22 years later, Shelley v. Kraemer, consolidated with the Detroit case, McGhee v. Sipes, before the U.S. Supreme Court) reversed that stance in 1948, making the covenants unenforceable — just one year after the Hannah subdivision had theirs written.

“Although no longer enforceable, they still exist,” said Michael J. Steinberg, director of the Civil Rights Litigation Initiative (CRLI) at the University of Michigan Law School.

Michael J. Steinberg, director of the Civil Rights Litigation Initiative at the UM Law School, speaks at the Register of Deeds office before the Hannah subdivision neighborhood files to repeal their 1947 racially restrictive covenant, Feb. 24, 2022 | Laina G. Stebbins

“And they will exist forever unless somebody takes action to repeal them.”

The CRLI and fair housing activist group Justice InDeed worked with Hannah subdivision residents over many months to come up with inclusive language to replace the covenant, Steinberg said, which included door-to-door canvassing efforts and neighborhood meetings. Those efforts culminated in community members signing an agreement earlier this month to repeal and replace the racist language.

An amendment to that particular property agreement required at least 50% of the Hannah homeowners to sign on. Currently, advocates say, over 85% of the neighborhood is on board. The other 15% could not sign for logistical reasons, like being out of town, and there has so far not been any opposition to the project from residents.

CLRI student attorney Nina Gerdes said that the groups are setting their sights on Lakewood subdivision, also located west of downtown Ann Arbor, to be the next neighborhood to repeal the language. They have also received requests from other subdivisions across the state in Wayne County, Oakland County and more.

Erica Briggs, a resident in the Hannah subdivision and an Ann Arbor City Council member, files with the Register of Deeds to repeal her neighborhood’s 1947 racially restrictive covenant, Feb. 24, 2022 | Laina G. Stebbins

At least 121 neighborhoods have similarly racist covenants in Washtenaw County alone. JusticeIndeed has found that 109 of those restrict sale or use of the property to “caucasian” or “white” buyers only, while 12 neighborhoods specifically prohibit “colored” or “African” people from buying or using properties.

And some of those not only discriminate against people of African descent, but also include discriminatory language toward Jewish people and immigrants from non-English-speaking countries

JusticeIndeed is continuing to map neighborhoods in Washtenaw County with racial covenants, while others at the university are working to map all individual property deeds in the county, as well.

Despite becoming unenforceable after the 1948 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, then becoming illegal under the Fair Housing Act of 1968, discriminatory language still exists in many housing agreements across the country as a dark reminder of the not-so-distant past.

Larry Kestenbaum is the Washtenaw County clerk and register of deeds. He said that upon taking office in 2005, he began his own research into racially restrictive covenants in Michigan and discovered them “all over the county,” as well as in the Chelsea, Manchester, Ypsilanti areas and more.

When the covenants were still enforceable, homeowners in a neighborhood could sue if a neighbor sold their house to a person of color. In the two decades leading up to 1948, the Michigan Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court would then void that housing agreement.

Washtenaw County Register of Deeds Office, Feb. 24, 2022 | Laina G. Stebbins

Developers often instituted the covenants for financial gain, as the thought was that homes in a racially integrated neighborhood would be worth less. Banks would also play a role in the discrimination by sometimes refusing to give loans to developers unless a racially restrictive covenant was implemented.

Erica Briggs, a resident in the Hannah subdivision and an Ann Arbor City Council member, acknowledged the symbolic nature of repealing and replacing the language but said it still is a necessary step toward creating true inclusivity.

“It’s time to re-examine our past, examine how past practices have shaped our community, continue to shape our community and have impacted our residents,” Briggs said. “I’m glad we’re taking this small step forward.”


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Laina G. Stebbins
Laina G. Stebbins

Laina G. Stebbins is a former Michigan Advance reporter. A lifelong Michigander, she is a graduate of Michigan State University’s School of Journalism, where she served as Founding Editor of The Tab Michigan State and as a reporter for the Capital News Service.