Racially Discriminatory Language Persists in Neighborhood Covenant

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Friday, January 26, 2018, 7:17 am
Chris Root

In 1924, what is today the Brookfield Heritage Neighborhood, just east of Hagadorn Road and north of Grand River Avenue, was farmland. The owner decided to subdivide the property into lots and established a covenant that would “run with the land” – in other words, it would be part of legal contracts for the sale (and resale) of each lot into the future.

Like many covenants across the country at that time, the covenant included this racial restriction: “No lot or lots or buildings shall ever be sold or leased to any other person or persons than those of the Caucasian race.”

The Brookfield Subdivision Restrictions, which govern approximately 100 houses located in the subdivision, can be updated every 25 years, and they were renewed in 1949 and 1974 with this language intact. In 1999, a number of residents signed affidavits individually disavowing this racial restriction.

The affidavit reads, in part, that the property owners “wholeheartedly endorse the fact that the restriction against selling or leasing to persons other than the Caucasian race is unenforceable since such restrictions have been held to be a violation of the Equal Protection clause of the Michigan and United States Constitutions.”

Refusing to sell a house to anyone other than a white person is now clearly illegal, since Congress passed the Fair Housing Act in April 1968 – and the East Lansing City Council adopted a largely symbolic open housing ordinance that same month – immediately following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in Memphis on April 5, 1968.

At the Brookfield Neighborhood Association’s quarterly Board meeting on Monday night this week, several residents said that having this racial restriction still be a part of a legal contract when you seek to purchase a house in the neighborhood is hardly welcoming.

Since November 2015, the Brookfield Neighborhood Association has been trying to figure out the best way to delete this sentence from the covenant without risking a possible challenge to any other provisions. At the January meeting, the Board expanded the committee assigned to seek to eliminate this language, and this committee plans to work as quickly as possible to get the language struck from the covenant.

The Brookfield covenant itself does not contain provisions for how it can be amended, making it unclear how to accomplish this. During 2016 and 2017, various Association Board members consulted with the Human Relations Commission, City Manager George Lahanas, and Mayor Mark Meadows. They were told that the City lacks the authority to alter language of neighborhood covenants. In May 2017, the Board voted to allocate up to $500 to seek legal counsel to eliminate the racially restrictive language from the covenant.

John Hays, Vice President of the Brookfield Board, who also is a lawyer, recommended that a way to remove the sentence without endangering the rest of the covenant would be to seek a declaratory judgment from the Ingham County Circuit Court that would allow removal of the language because it is illegal. Obtaining such a judgment from the Court could protect the neighborhood association from any attempts to eliminate other restrictions. Hays said he would look into the procedure for obtaining a declaratory judgment.

Liz Miller, one of two people added to the committee and also a member of the Human Relations Commission, pointed out that “timing is everything” and that this is the right time to get this done.

Just last week, East Lansing’s City Council decided to convene “community-wide conversations” about race in East Lansing this coming spring. This decision was prompted by East Lansing High School freshman Alex Hosey calling for an apology from the Mayor for East Lansing’s history of keeping Blacks from living in the city until 1968. Hosey identified such an apology in his essay, “Why I Sit,” as one of two actions that would “compel me to stand once again” for the national anthem as a member of ELHS basketball and football teams.

Brookfield Neighborhood Association Board member Jennifer Castner said she inquired twice at Council of Neighborhood Presidents meetings about a year ago whether anyone was aware of similar covenants in other East Lansing neighborhoods, but no one seemed aware of such covenants. Neighborhood covenants (or charters) should be on file with the Ingham County Register of Deeds, where individuals can search for documents in the vault.

Brookfield Board member Alan Munn pointed out at Monday’s meeting that seeking a law from the Michigan legislature would be another approach that could benefit not only Brookfield but other neighborhoods across the state.

The Washington state legislature passed a law in 2006 making it easier for neighborhood associations to eliminate racial restrictive language from any of their governing documents. This law (Senate Bill 6169) specified that neighborhood associations can eliminate illegal discriminatory language by a simple majority vote of its board.

James Gregory, a professor of history at the University of Washington who helped to promote passage of this bill, has pointed out that the Washington bill does not address the majority of discriminatory property deeds, which are not governed by neighborhood association policy documents.


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