How Technology is Helping Remove Racist Language on Washington State Property Deeds – GeekWire

A pamphlet promoting Seattle’s Blue Ridge neighborhood contained a language restriction on homeownership and rentals to people of white or Caucasian origin. (Photo courtesy of UW’s Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project)

If you live in a home that was built before the 1950s, chances are there is racist language lurking in the property records.

For decades during the first half of the 20th century, developers, real estate companies, and communities inserted covenants into title deeds and neighborhood association charters that prohibited Black, Asian, and Jewish residents from living in these houses.

Now, the University of Washington, John L. Scott, and Amazon Web Services (AWS) are working to uncover and remove the restrictive covenants from Washington state records—while helping to educate the public about past and present housing discrimination to clear up.

In the 1920s, 30s, and 40s, language was promoted as a means of protecting property values. It helped maintain segregation when other racist strategies were banned. And the Pacific Northwest, which has often considered itself more progressive on racial issues, has embraced the practice.

“Segregation in the Northwest wasn’t much different than segregation in the South,” said UW history professor James Gregory.

Since 2005, Gregory has led UW’s work in combing through and digitizing property records to uncover the language. In recent years, John L. Scott and AWS have joined the effort and developed a platform that would make it easier for homeowners to identify the covenants from their records and take action to remove them.

The New World, a Communist Party weekly, drew attention to Seattle’s racial alliances in 1948. (Photo courtesy of the UW’s Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project.)

The discovery of racist language in your own writing “kind of hits you viscerally,” said Phil McBride, chief operating officer for John L. Scott, which operates on the West Coast and Idaho.

McBride stumbled across the wording when he and his wife bought a home in Maryland decades ago. His inaccuracy stuck with him, and he recently began applying his real estate know-how to the problem.

For most residential properties in the state, the documents, including the agreements, are not available in a digitized format, existing only in hardcover, microfiche, or microfilm. Through the painstaking work of UW researchers – who now also include more than 700 online volunteers on the Zooniverse crowdsource platform – they have identified thousands of properties with racist agreements.

  • In King County, which includes Seattle, at least 30,000 charters are known or suspected to contain the Covenants; More than 1 million records in the county are yet to be digitized
  • 4,000 deeds in Pierce County, which includes Tacoma
  • 4,000 deeds in Snohomish County, which includes Everett
  • 5,000-7,000 charters in Spokane County in eastern Washington
  • Fewer than 2,000 charters in Thurston County
  • Approximately 2,000 charters in Whatcom County

Gregory’s team found entire Seattle-area communities covered by the language. William Boeing, founder of Boeing Aircraft, spearheaded the development of neighborhoods like Blue Ridge, Innis Arden, Richmond Beach, and Richmond Heights—and included racist alliances in all of them.

The Blue Ridge development, located in northwest Seattle and overlooking Puget Sound, contained language stating:

No property in this Addendum may at any time be sold, transferred, rented or leased in whole or in part to any person or persons who is not of White or Caucasian origin. No one other than a person of White or Caucasian race shall occupy any property in or part of this annex or any building thereon, except for a domestic servant actually employed by a person of White or Caucasian race when the latter is an occupant of the property.

Enforcing the racist covenants has been illegal since 1968 and the passage of the Housing Rights Act through Congress. But these and other discriminatory measures have lasting effects that need to be tracked, Gregory said. The public cannot fully understand why minority groups are disadvantaged, he said, without understanding how property restrictions have prevented them from owning homes.

“Because of these kinds of restrictions, people have not been allowed to buy real estate for generations,” he added.

Over the years, Washington state legislatures have passed legislation to eliminate filing fees and make it easier to remove the language from individual homeowners association charters and bylaws. Last year, the Legislature approved a bill authorizing teams from UW and Eastern Washington University to search records statewide for the restrictions and notify owners of their existence. The project will be funded until June 2023.

But even with legislative efforts to make it easier to remove racist language, it can still be a chore.

The platform McBride and Amazon are working on is trying to make it easier for homeowners. This is how the prototype works:

  • It uses automated AWS machine learning tools to search digitized deeds and property documents for restrictive phrases.
  • When found, a homeowner has the option to change the language or edit.
  • The platform automatically finds the necessary information about the property and fills it in a standardized form.
  • Due to the legal nature of the documents, the request for modification must be notarized. The platform has a link to make an appointment with an online notary.
  • Once the signatures are notarized, the website submits the information to the district auditor and sends a confirmation to the homeowner.

While the site is largely built, there are significant challenges to overcome. Most importantly, the platform still requires a database of digitized real estate records. While the UW has thousands of them for research purposes, district auditors must grant AWS and John L. Scott permission to use them in that capacity. And many properties don’t have their full records in a digitized format.

McBride is speaking to mortgage and title companies that have repositories of digitized documents to see if the project can access them. He’s looking forward to launching the tool early next year and has heard from organizations in other states that are interested in passing legislation and offering the service.

“If we take care of the past, we can talk about what is relevant today.”

Gregory said he too would like to see the platform succeed.

For the time being, employees at John L. Scott will guide the employees manually through the editing process. The company is committed to overturning the racist covenants, McBride said.

“Because we were complicit and complacent about it, I think we should do it right from an industry standpoint,” he said.

And the reality is that there are persistent discriminatory housing practices, such as B. Appraisers assigning lower values ​​to Black-owned properties than White-owned properties that need to be corrected.

“By dealing with the past,” McBride said, “we allow ourselves to talk about what’s relevant today.”

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