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Idaho homeowners could soon get rid of racist covenants in their deeds

A view of the Idaho Capitol building's dome at sunset.
James Dawson
Boise State Public Radio

Edward Labenski and his wife Cynthia bought a house in Boise in 2018 in the Warm Springs Mesa neighborhood.

Labenski said he was looking over the deed before finalizing the deal when he came across this line.

“Section 23: No part of the real property or any building site or structure shall at any time be sold, conveyed, rented or leased, in whole or in part, to any person or persons not of the White or Caucasian race,” he said.

The only non-White people allowed to be in the neighborhood were domestic workers.

Labenski eventually did finalize the deal.

“But the initial impact of the language was clear and unavoidable, and it has shaped our perception of the home and the area,” he said.

And Labenski isn’t alone.

McKay Cunningham, a former law professor for the now-defunct Concordia Law School, said he found 50 subdivisions within Ada County with similar racial covenants.

Such language was widespread in the United States, with massive subdivisions built following World War II excluding non-White buyers. A federal report cites a magazine article saying 80% of homes in Los Angeles and Chicago carried racial covenants by 1940.

The federal government also refused to insure mortgages in and near Black neighborhoods, a practice known as redlining. The River Street neighborhood in Boise is just one example of redlining.

A bill unanimously approved by an Idaho Senate committee Wednesday would let homeowners ask their county clerks to put a note in their deed explicitly saying those kinds of racist conditions are void.

It would also prohibit all deeds recorded after July 1, 2022, from including racist and discriminatory language.

“This housing practice has been responsible for a lot of wealth disparities between people who are White and people of color,” said Sen. Melissa Wintrow (D-Boise), who sponsors the bill.

“The legislation won't solve that problem, but it’s a way to acknowledge the issue and replace that very ugly language and policy in our state, ensuring all people know they are welcome here,” Wintrow said.

Idaho isn’t the only state considering what to do with this stain in its history.

An ongoing court battle in Washington involves Alex May, a Spokane homeowner, who wants the county assessor to erase racist provisions in his deed. In Washington, a recently passed state law created a path for homeowners to strike that language, though the original record could be kept for archival or historical purposes.

Two state courts have rejected May’s arguments over the years. The Washington Supreme Court heard the case last October, but it has yet to issue a ruling.

Wintrow's bill still needs approval from both the Senate and the House, as well as Gov. Brad Little’s signature, to become law.

Follow James Dawson on Twitter @RadioDawson for more local news.

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I cover politics and a bit of everything else for Boise State Public Radio. Outside of public meetings, you can find me fly fishing, making cool things out of leather or watching the Seattle Mariners' latest rebuilding season. If you have a tip, please get in touch!

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