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New Missouri law mandates removal of discriminatory covenants from property deeds

The Shelley House, located in The Greater Ville neighborhood in north St. Louis set the backdrop for a landmark 1948 U.S. Supreme Court decision that made widespread racially restrictive covenants unenforceable.
Michael B. Thomas for NPR
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The Shelley House, located in The Greater Ville neighborhood in north St. Louis set the backdrop for a landmark 1948 U.S. Supreme Court decision that made widespread racially restrictive covenants unenforceable.

Gov. Mike Parson is set to sign legislation requiring the removal of language restricting home ownership by race, national origin or language from older housing deeds.

Gov. Mike Parson announced he will sign a bill into law Thursday that requires antiquated housing restrictions based on race, national origin or religion to be removed in all newly-recorded deeds.

Beginning in 1935, the federal government required housing developers to sign agreements, or racial deed covenants, that they would not sell these homes to “non-Caucasians,” in order to be eligible for federal construction loans.

Local governments across the country put forth similar “restrictive covenants,” with some also listing nationalities, religions and individuals with disabilities.

While it’s been illegal since 1968, the discriminatory language still exists in deeds of older homes and is hurtful and offensive to potential buyers.

One restrictive covenant in a southwestern Missouri home stated: “No persons of any race other than white shall own this property and are not allowed to use or occupy any structure on the property unless they were there in the capacity as domestic servants.”

A U.S. Supreme Court ruling struck down states’ ability to enforce discriminatory covenants nationwide in 1948, and the Federal Fair Housing Act of 1968 made the practice of writing racial covenants into deeds illegal. Missouri passed its own law in 1993, but the state legislators never set up a road map for how to take the language out of existing deeds.

So they keep getting passed on from owner to owner.

St. Louis and Kansas City were among the cities that led the nation in restrictive covenants. According to a recent study, St. Louis still had 30,000 properties with restrictive covenants.

Missouri joins a handful of states that have recently enacted laws to remove such covenants from property records, following Maryland, California, Illinois, Connecticut and Virginia.

The enforcement of the bill falls on the recorder of deeds office in each Missouri county.

Under the legislation, the people who prepare or submit a deed for recording – typically a title company – would remove the language before sending it into the recorder of deeds. If the language is not removed, then the recorder of deeds office can refuse to accept the deed and send it back to the title company to make the changes.

For homeowners who aren’t intending on selling their home but would still like to remove the language from their deeds, Petrie said it would involve submitting a one-page document to the recorder’s office, which would cost $24. Most of that revenue would go to the county employer retirement fund and county general revenue, she said, but $5.50 of it would stay with the recorder’s office.

This is the second year the bill was introduced.

“We think this is a really important good-government cleanup to start getting some of these restrictive covenants – that are not enforceable anyway – but get them off the books,” said Jessica Petrie, a lobbyist for the Recorders’ Association of Missouri, during a legislative hearing this spring. “It’s already 2022.”

This story was originally published on the Missouri Independent.

Rebecca Rivas covers civil rights, criminal justice and immigration for the Missouri Independent. She has been reporting in Missouri since 2001, most recently as senior reporter and video producer at the St. Louis American, the nation's leading African-American newspaper.
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