Seattleites finally able to right a longtime wrong

Property covenants in Seattle

SEATTLE — Starting this year, King County, Wash., will allow property owners to formally remove racist language from their property’s chain of title.

Racial covenants are provisions recorded on some properties that explicitly barred members of certain religions or people from specific national origins, ethnic backgrounds or races from purchasing or occupying the property.

Researchers from the University of Washington have found more than 500 deeds containing racist or discriminating restrictions applying to more than 20,000 properties. While their interactive map isn’t a comprehensive list, records have been found across the city including Capitol Hill, Madison Park and nearly all the neighborhoods north of the Ship Canal.

“No person excepting of the Caucasian race shall ever be permitted to own or occupy said premises or reside thereon, excepting the capacity of a domestic servant,” states a 1945 restriction for a subdivision in Lake Forest Park covering 184 parcels on the UW project website.

While those provisions haven’t been legally enforceable for decades, the language can still be a hurtful reminder of the U.S.’s history of housing discrimination and segregation.

Since 2019, property owners have been able to file a “restrictive covenant modification” through the King County Recorder’s Office, which effectively adds a document to the record amounting to a formal disavowal of the language and notice that the discriminatory provisions are void and unenforceable.

According to King County, adding a modification document legally strikes the language but does not physically erase the provisions from the original document.

However, next year, property owners will also be able to remove the discriminatory provision from their property’s chain of title by going through King County Superior Court and then filing for a replacement in the Recorder’s Office. While there is no charge for filing new records with the Recorder’s Office, filing through Superior Court costs $20.

King County Archives will maintain the original documents for historical purposes, but the new option allows property owners to separate historical records from future property transactions.

The new option is a result of a bill state lawmakers passed this year which will give property owners the option of removing an unlawful and discriminatory covenant from their property deed. The law also funds more research toward finding racist covenants and notifying property owners.

The form home sellers provide to buyers during a sale must also include a disclosure whether there are any covenants or restrictions recorded against the property as a part of the new law.

How to find whether a property record has a restrictive covenant

While research by the UW and Eastern Washington University is expected to turn up more covenants with racist language, nothing prevents King County residents from looking into their own dwellings.

If you have looked through the UW’s database of restrictive covenants, another way to look for them is to search land title records maintained by the county Recorder’s Office and County Archives. You may need information like your parcel number and the legal description which you can find from the King County assessor’s parcel map.

Another way is to look at your owner’s title insurance policy, which is typically issued during the time the property is purchased and identifies documents appearing in public records related to the property. If your policy references deeds from decades ago or covenant documents for an entire subdivision, you can request copies through the title company or use the information to get copies from the Recorder’s Office.