Epic Heat? New Study Links Racial Deed Restrictions to Temperature Risk

What impact do racial covenants in property deeds have on heat-related health risks? You might be surprised.

In a first-of-its-kind effort to answer this question, researchers looked at greater Minneapolis. They mapped out the places where homes have a history of white ownership, maintained by racial deed language.

These historically exclusive neighborhoods are cooler, with more trees and less concrete. Maybe that finding comes as no surprise.

But heat extremes in the United States can kill. Heat waves do, in fact, kill more people every year than fierce storms and floods do. Heat, by the way, also makes storms fiercer, and flooding more severe. And that affects the economic value of a home.

Deeds and Greenery: Making the Connection

When any area becomes full of concrete infrastructure, it has to deal with amplified heat, stormwater runoff, and pollution. Too much concrete means too few shrubs and trees to purify the air and keep neighborhoods cool.

Now, what’s the connection from deeds to greenery? When researchers plotted racial deed restrictions throughout greater Minneapolis, they found that neighborhoods with race-based restrictions contain less asphalt, and have about 11% more tree cover than the area’s average. And these historically exclusive areas are nearly 2°F cooler, on average.  

Once enforceable throughout the United States, race-based deed restrictions were “a key tool,” as study leader Rebecca Walker explains, for keeping suburbs segregated. These same areas were best able to promote parks and quiet spaces, and shun commercial development.

What Possessed Them: Why Racial Covenants Exist

Deed restrictions set ground rules for a variety of things that may or may not be done on a piece of property. They are particularly common in subdivisions that wish to preserve a certain “character” of a neighborhood.

Some deed restrictions make sense; others are mildly annoying. But racial covenants are toxic, and they’ve long been considered relics of an unfair past. These restrictions essentially reassured home buyers that they’d be coming into all-white areas when investing in real estate. Because other buyers weren’t allowed to come in at all.

In 1948, race-based deed restrictions were declared unenforceable by the Supreme Court. In 1968, federal fair housing law outlawed the recording of racial covenants in the first place. So, what went on between 1948 and 1968?

Some developers kept recording racial covenants through the 1950s — even knowing they’d have no force of law. The developers did it to “send a message,” said history professor Larry Cebula, as quoted by Inlander.com. The developers may have thought the Supreme Court Justices would later change their minds, just as they’d done in the past.

Making Amends: Arizona and Oregon Confront Race-Based Deed Restrictions

Arizona is currently enacting a bipartisan bill to let homeowners renounce race-restrictive covenants. As Phoenix’s Channel 12 News reports, a 1950s era declaration of restrictions for a Phoenix home forbade selling or renting it to a whole lot of people. One real example bars “Mexican, Japanese, Chinese, Mexican-Indian, American-Indian, Korean, Malay, Filipino, Negro, or Hindu, or any person of any race other than the white or Caucasian race” from holding the deed.

The new Arizona law lets deed holders renounce their deeds at their county recorder’s office. There’s a form available for the deed amendment.   

Oregon also has a new law allowing for removal of exclusionary deed language. A county clerk led the effort.  

This means Oregon deed holders may ask a court to strike the discriminatory language. (Traditionally, property deeds can’t be altered, except through court proceedings.)

Is a racial restriction lurking in your chain of title? Look up the language of your deed in your property documents, or obtain a copy of your deed.

Spokane Title Agents Help Buyers Disclaim Racial Deed Restrictions  

In 2021, Washington’s state legislature established a plan to map out all (thousands!) of deeds in the state containing racial exclusions. Typical language barred people outside of “the white race” from buying homes. The researchers would come from Eastern Washington University as well as the University of Washington. In counties where deeds aren’t yet digitized, professors and students went to the counties to dig through deeds by hand.

Today, Washington residents may go to Superior Court and get a judge’s go-ahead to have the original deed copied, strike the nasty language from the copy, record the copy, then file the original in an archive. Better yet, there’s an option without a tedious court process. And it’s free! The restrictive covenant modification, when added to a property’s records, expressly “strikes from the referenced original instrument all provisions that are void and unenforceable under law.”

The recording office employees are not authorized to actually guide people through the form. Helpfully, Spokane-based Vista Title and Escrow has stepped up. The company offers to file modifications for their customers whose transactions they close. There’s no charge for the service. Buyers just need to sign the form.

The title company’s employees do offer more generalized help to the public. They’re showing people how to find what they need to complete and file the form for themselves.   

Kansas Takes a Stand

In April 2024, Governor Laura Kelly signed into law a bill that the Kansas state legislature unanimously passed: H.B. 2562. Section 14 includes the new real estate law. It allows deed holders, for a fee, to go to the county recorder’s office and formally release race-based restrictions through a certificate of release of prohibited covenants.

Degrading deed makers in Kansas, too, found all sorts of discrimination to flaunt. One Kansas deed covenant excluded people of “more-than one fourth of the Semitic race” as well as “Armenians, Jews, Hebrews, Turks, Persians, Syrians and Arabians.”

The new law treats such obnoxious language as null and illegal — bringing the state up to date with the federal Fair Housing Act.

Not gonna take it any more: Virginia and New Jersey are DELETING prejudiced deed restrictions.

Looking Ahead: To Ensure a Fair, Healthy Society

The financial injustice of race-based real estate restrictions is problematic enough. New information about heat risks in historically undervalued neighborhoods raises the stakes even higher. 

Researchers say it’s important to make heat map correlations available for planners, legislators, and policy makers. How can a society to address historical inequalities, they ask, until we know how and where the impacts continue?

The work ahead could be lifesaving.

Supporting References

Channel 12 News from KPNX-TV Phoenix: “These Words Are Ugly’: Governor Hobbs Signs Bill Allowing Homeowners to Remove Racist Restrictions on Who Can Live on Property (Mar. 31, 2024).

Samantha Wohlfeil for The Inlander: As EWU Readies to Share Maps of Racial Covenants in Eastern Washington, a Spokane Title Company Is Helping Homeowners Disavow the Racist Documents (Apr. 25, 2024; republication of a printed article titled “Remedy for a Racist Past”).

Phil Pasquini for Countercurrents: Kansas at Last Allows Removal of Racist Property Covenants (Apr. 20, 2024).

The Jefferson Exchange Team on Jefferson Public Radio / NPR (hosted by Geoffrey Riley for Southern Oregon University): New Oregon Law Allows the Removal of Racist Language From Property Deeds (Apr. 3, 2024).

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign via Phys.org: Study – Historic Racial Covenants in Property Deeds Linked to Disparities in Exposure to Dangerous Heat (Mar. 5, 2024; authored by Jodi Heckel and discussing a study published in Landscape and Urban Planning).

And as linked.

For more on this topic, see: Is a Hurtful Deed Restriction Lurking in Your Deed?

Photo credits: Ketut Subiyanto and Mary Taylor, via Pexels/Canva.