Push to remove racist rules hidden in old Vermont housing policies

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MONTPELIER, Vt. (WCAX) – There is a movement in Montpellier to officially ban a policy that has spurred housing discrimination. Legislators target legal clauses on land deeds called covenants.

The bill would officially ban a policy that prevented people from owning homes and land because of their race or religion.

But racial justice advocates say the issue needs more time and discussion.

When you buy a house or property, it comes with a bill of sale.

In the 1920s and 1930s, some deeds had caveats prohibiting certain groups of people from owning or occupying the houses.

“It explicitly prohibited the house from being sold or, in some cases, occupied by anyone who was considered non-white at the time,” said Mia Watson of the Vermont Housing Finance Agency.

Watson says at least two South Burlington neighborhoods had covenants, and a property purchased by a Supreme Court justice in the 1970s also had a covenant.

So this week, a bill before Vermont lawmakers seeks to right that wrong. House Bill 511 would allow landowners to release the covenant from their deed, though historians can always go back and check land records to see it.

“They were on the sidelines, in the shadows. The stake had not passed through their hearts. That’s one of the points of this bill,” Burlington City Attorney Dan Richardson said.

Pacts do not discriminate today. They were banned by the Fair Housing Act 1968. Not all that exist on the properties are legally enforceable.

“During the committee’s discussion, we learned that a member of the House Judiciary had recently purchased property for the member’s home and similar language prohibiting sale or use to Jews was uncovered during title search,” Rep. Maxine Grad, D-Moretown, said during a floor debate in the House of Representatives. “Because there was no process to remove or release the pledge, the member’s closure was delayed for 3 weeks and the member incurred additional expenses to ‘do the right thing’ so that the neighborhood of the member be welcoming.”

The covenants paralleled the practice of redlining, where banks refused to finance homes in certain neighborhoods occupied by black Americans.

“This should be right on the money of the work we do together,” said Mark Hughes, executive director of the Vermont Racial Justice Alliance.

Hughes says housing policies like redlining and covenants have stifled intergenerational wealth creation and transfer.

He says the issue is complex and needs more time, and should wait until next year, when more Blacks, Indigenous peoples and Vermonters of color can be part of the conversation.

“Whereby we can in perpetuity commemorate those things that we discover, that we need to reflect on, so firstly we don’t make the same mistakes and secondly we can work together to correct the ones we have,” Hughes mentioned.

Experts admit that it would be difficult to identify the extent of the problem. Most housing in Vermont was built in the 1960s, long after these conventions became common. And landowners and city clerks should dig into historical records act by act to weed out covenants.

Lawmakers say the proposal is part of an ongoing effort to frame public policy through the lens of fairness.

“I think this will be a tool in our ongoing work to end institutional and systemic racism,” said Rep. Maxine Grad, D-Moretown.

According to Grad, Virginia, Minnesota, Washington, Maryland, New Jersey, Illinois, California, Florida, Oregon and Connecticut also have similar laws.

Racial justice will also be on the ballot in November as well. A constitutional amendment banning slavery and indentured servitude will be presented to voters on November 4.

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