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Lawmakers propose solution to address racist covenants in legal property documents

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by Michael Lyle, Nevada Current

History researchers at the University of Nevada, Reno estimate Washoe County alone has at least 11,000 racist covenants, legal property documents that once restricted anyone not white from purchasing or living in the home.

While the covenants, a relic of the Jim Crow era, are unconstitutional and unenforceable, Democratic state Sen. Dallas Harris is proposing a way to redact the racist language from documents. 

Senate Bill 368, which was heard Friday in the Assembly Judiciary Committee, would allow for a petition to be filed with district court to remove the language. The judge would then issue a court order to county recorders to redact the language from future documents.

The county recorder would keep “the original instrument as a public record for historical purposes” according to the bill.

“The original document will stand,” Harris said. “This will be just for documents moving forward so we are not erasing the history of the existence of this language.”  

The bill unanimously passed out of the Senate on April 19.

At Friday’s hearing, Harris introduced a conceptual amendment to allocate $150,000 to UNR and UNLV to aid in researching and identifying racist covenants in the state. 

Jacob Dorman, a UNR history professor who is part of a team currently researching documents, said while the team estimates “there are 11,000 property deeds with racist covenants in Washoe County alone,” they are still working to identify all of them. 

“It takes quite a bite of research to find these documents,” he said.  

While no data was presented on how many are estimated to be in Clark County, Democratic Assemblywoman Shondra Summers-Armstrong said when she purchased her home she discovered one. 

“When we bought the land in 1997, we found we had restrictive covenants,” she said. “It’s quite startling to read the language and quite offensive.”

SB 368 builds on legislative efforts in 2019 from Harris and then-state Sen. Julia Ratti, who introduced legislation that allowed homeowners to disavow racist covenants in their legal documents.  

Kent Ervin, a UNR professor, said the issue came to light when he purchased his Reno home in 2015 and read the fineprint in the legal documents. 

“The covenant started out sounding quaint,” he said. “We can’t make moonshine. We can’t run a funeral parlor. Then I read the property can only be owned and occupied by white people. Obviously offensive. Even though such restrictions are long illegal, we still had to sign the covenant to close the sale.”

Ervin said he worked with Ratti and Harris to find a legislative fix but the bill “turned out to be insufficient.”

“Where we ended up was a document you could essentially file that would be recorded with your other housing documents lodging, essentially, your displeasure with the language,” Harris said of the 2019 bill. 

She said only about 19 have been filed in Washoe County since the bill was passed.

“It’s not the type of participation I hoped for,” Harris said. “I thought we could do better. There has to be a way to get this language out of these documents. It’s not operable and frankly offensive, it’s still there.”

In addition to a homeowner filing a petition with the court, under SB 368 Harris said HOAs and other groups, such as the UNR researchers, could also file a petition. Homeowners would be notified and have a chance to object. 

Harris and the researchers speaking Friday said it’s important not to erase the documents completely. 

“I find history is important to preserve and not just erase but redact them and amend them and ensure history is not erased,” said Fernando Melendez, a student working with the UNR research team. Failing to preserve the documents would be a “terrible” loss of the historical record, depriving future Nevadans of “understanding Nevada and all its past.”

The committee took no action on the legislation. 

Nevada Current
Nevada Currenthttps://www.nevadacurrent.com
Nevada Current is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Nevada Current maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Hugh Jackson for questions: [email protected]. Follow Nevada Current on Facebook and Twitter.

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