Robots Against Racism: New Tech Detects Old Prejudice in Deeds

On July 28, 2022, Joshua Browder tweeted:

Today, we are announcing a new DoNotPay product to fight institutional racism, by removing racist language from millions of original housing deeds and HOA documents…

Joshua Browder is founder and CEO of DoNotPay, the “robot lawyer” company putting computers to work for consumer rights. DoNotPay is urging Californians to have discriminatory language removed from their property deeds and homeowners’ association documents. And it’s automating the process.

Discriminatory Housing Restrictions Violate the Law. Can They Be Deleted?

County deed recorders’ offices across the country keep real estate documents going back decades. Many of these documents have old language that bars members of particular groups from owning or occupying lots represented by deeds and developers’ recorded documents.

The impacts of unfair housing provisions on minorities has massive impacts. Home ownership enables people to build equity through the generations. Without access to real estate, people miss out on a key form of wealth accumulation.

Prejudiced restrictions are now legally unenforceable. They’ve been unenforceable since 1948, when the U.S. Supreme Court said so. When the Fair Housing Act was enacted in 1968, Congress declared racial restrictions flat-out illegal.   

But little was done to root them out. After all, race-based restrictions remain in so many chains of title. Who has the authority to delete them, even when they’re found? Unlike municipal zoning rules, deed restrictions can’t simply be changed through policymaking. If a deed’s covenants and restrictions run with the land, removal isn’t possible, right?  

That view is changing.

California recently adopted a new set of rules. Now, a California property owner (or anyone else) may request the removal of offensive restrictions from the county register.

As reported by Maxwell Strachan at Vice, countless race-based restrictions exist in California county records. Now, DoNotPay has developed an automation tool that can check tens of thousands of California records. Now, the company itself as well as its customers are tracking down these clauses. If terms that violate fair housing law are detected, DoNotPay applies for their removal from the county recorder’s office.

From Parking Ticket Fighters to Anti-Discrimination Crusaders: DoNotPay Takes on the Bureaucracy. 

Joshua Browder started the company as a way to fight off parking tickets. Thus the name DoNotPay. The company branched out to offer various legal protections and solutions to help people conquer everyday hassles. For Browder, a racial deed covenant is an excellent example of something that should not stand, but would be a major nuisance for the ordinary person to fix.

Recording offices have age-old, entrenched processes. There can be many millions of pages of property records in a single county deed registry. Immersed in the work of tracing property records back in time and automating deed-related functions, Browder’s company began engaging title companies.

What did they uncover? Deeds that barred real estate from ever being transferred or even rented to anyone not “white or Caucasian” and that barred any residents of “Hindu or Asiatic” descent—except those present in service positions. DoNotPay can find these deed clauses even when the language is only present earlier in the chain of title. The company submits automated requests to the county recorder of deeds, so that the offending terms are removed from each document within 30 days.

DoNotPay is the latest company to work on the matter of digital inclusion. Others have emerged, one by one.

Last year, we reported on Notarize, the online notary company that offers free notarizations to remove racial restrictions in Washington state, and its plan to do the same in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, Idaho, and Oregon. All of these states have a process for removal, or have introduced bills addressing the issue.

Racial Restrictions Exist Nationwide. States Are Just Now Getting to Grips With Them.

Massachusetts is looking at creating a way to remove racist deed covenants from county records. Some of these restrictive clauses date back centuries. Indeed, property records in early colonies like Massachusetts date all the way back to the early 1600s.

Early deed restrictions might forbid Irish or Jewish people from acquiring the land. And in numerous chains of title from the 1800s, and persisting in the records today, is language commanding that property:

  • Never be “occupied or conveyed to any negroes or Irish or any person or persons that would be considered disorderly people.”
  • Never be “resold to a colored person, a Polander or an Italian.” 

WBUR, a Boston-area public radio media channel, investigated property records and found such language — and a lot more. Its reporters then went out and interviewed people who held properties with offensive restrictions. The homeowners were shocked.  

But this isn’t uncommon. Countless racial covenants persist in deed recorders’ offices throughout the United States.

In 1969, Massachusetts, acting at the state level, formally banned property restrictions connected with sex, race, religion, or national origin. But it’s only recently that judges and lawmakers are grappling with the title records to confront the language they contain.

Some Massachusetts residents just want the language off their titles for good. They’re supporting a state bill to allow for deletion. But some people say racist history should not be erased and forgotten.

So far, Massachusetts has created a provision for judges to append a statement on a deed, declaring the offending restriction void. This repudiates — but doesn’t delete — the language.  

Racial Fairness Is Making Significant Progress in the Real Estate World Now. Deeds Are in the Spotlight.

As our readers can see, there’s unprecedented scrutiny of developer’s documents and unfair restrictions in property titles. We’ve noted this in Connecticut, New York, Illinois, and Texas in the last two years. Legal provisions that deal with race-based covenants in deeds are taking shape in several more states, such as Florida, Maryland, New Jersey, Virginia, Utah, and Washington state. will continue to follow law and policy changes related to racial covenants. Readers can find more information on racial covenants at the following links:

One big question, in addition to whether the clauses can be removed, involves the historical scope of the matter. How can race-based restrictions in age-old chains of title be counted? Old deed records were written out by hand. They are not in a search engine’s database. Searching through millions of documents one at a time is an impossible task.

Now, DoNotPay and other forward-thinking tech companies are coming up with answers.

Supporting References

Maxwell Strachan for Motherboard – Tech by Vice: Californians Can Now Auto-Detect Racist Language in Housing Deeds, HOA Rules and Have It Removed (Jul. 28, 2022).

Simón Rios for WBUR Boston, Morning Edition (National Public Radio): Racist Covenants Still Stain Property Records. Massachusetts May Try to Have Them Removed (Jan. 24, 2022).

Cheryl W. Thompson et al. for Morning Edition (National Public Radio): Racial Covenants, a Relic of the Past, Are Still on the Books Across the Country (Nov. 17, 2021).

And as linked.

Photo credit: Gotta Be Worth It, via Pexels.