Governor quickly signs bill to remove racially restrictive covenants

By St. Clair Murraine
Outlook staff writer

Wrapped in a bill that gives potential home buyers more leeway to contest discriminatory housing practices, a local effort to removed racially restrictive covenants from purchasing document has gotten a major boost.

Gov. Ron DeSantis signed SB 374 last Friday, extinguishing discriminatory restrictions found in property deeds and easements. The new law essentially reiterated what has been known for decades, stating that racially restrictive language in property documents is illegal and unconstitutional.

For the moment SB 374 culminates the first phase of an effort that started last summer to remove the language. It started immediately after an outraged attorney Annabelle Dias found the language in documents when she attempted to purchase a home in Betton Hills.

Many who joined the effort that led to the legislation, expressed surprise at how quickly DeSantis signed the bill. It was one of 10 bills that he signed on the same day he received them last Friday.

Rep. Lorranne Ausley and Sen. Bill Montford, both members of a task force that was formed to lead the push to get the language removed, helped to get legislation through. 

“The language that is in this bill is actually way farther than we thought we would get,” Ausley said. “I think it’s a great victory and it’s long overdue.

Attorney Jami Coleman responds to a reporter’s question during a press conference on racially restrictive covenants last summer.
Photo by St. Clair Murraine

“It does a lot of good things in the area of housing discrimination, including this issue for extinguishing restrictive covenants.”

In part, the bill reads:  “A discriminatory restriction is not enforceable in this state, and all discriminatory restrictions contained in any title transaction recorded in this state are unlawful, are unenforceable, and are declared null and void. Any discriminatory restriction contained in a previously recorded title transaction is extinguished and severed from the recorded title transaction and the remainder of the title transaction remains enforceable and effective.”

Montford said that while history can’t be changed the bill “can change illegal documents and make sure such offensive language no longer exist.”

He added, “It was one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had in terms of being able to work with other members of the legislature and people in the community to come to a bill that would correct a terrible wrong. It’s a good feeling to be a part of the law that corrected a wrong.”

However, the new law is only the first step to getting the restrictive language removed from home purchasing documents in all 67 counties, the task force seemingly still has to figure out how to get it stricken.

“There is not a process, but the law makes provisions for it to be done,” said attorney Jami Coleman, who sits on the task force. “It’s the first step to getting that done.”

One option for developing a process for removing the language could be to seek the help of title companies and the Clerk of Courts, something that came up during initial discussions. A portion of the new law also gives neighborhood associations leeway to change “a discriminatory restriction appearing in a covenant or restriction affecting the parcel.”

“The goal is to get rid of the language for future buyers so that future buyers do not continue to be affected by our history’s wrong,” Coleman said.

Outcry started last summer when Annabelle Dias, a criminal defense attorney, took to Facebook to state her disgust after finding race restrictive language in a perpetual easement among documents for a home she was purchasing in Betton Hills. Coleman decided to join Dias in seeking a change.

“I don’t think our children need to be constantly reminded that they were once considered interior to White people,” Coleman said. “They don’t have to keep reliving that. If we can remove that language I think we will be closer to healing our country.”

The outrage prompted Rev. RB Holmes to call a press conference, where he and other clergy joined with government leaders to decry the racial covenant. Holmes rallied a cross-section of leaders to form the task force to lead the call for ousting the language. 

Eventually the committee came up with a resolution pertaining to the removal. City and county governments, along with several civic and professional organizations singed on. 

“Senate Bill 374 reflects the inclusive and diverse community we should demand for all of our citizens,” said Sue Dick, President/CEO Greater Tallahassee Chamber of Commerce and a task force member. “By unanimous vote of the Senate and House this act extinguishes discriminatory restrictions from real estate documents. I commend the work of Reverend Holmes and the task force members.”  

Holmes also praised the determination of the task force, especially at a time when there was some doubt it could make much progress. He also expressed gratitude to Ausley, Montford, leaders of the three local chamber of commerce, Betton Hills Neighborhoods Association and the Board of Realtors

“In a time where there is so much racial tension, it is refreshing to see how much we can accomplish when we are united and determined to do good,” Holmes said. “I commend the Florida legislature for passing this historic bill. I applaud Governor DeSantis for immediately signing  Senate bill 374  into law. The signing of this bill was a significant step in knocking down a piece of institutional racism.”

The restrictive covenant that has been discovered in the deeds of more than 200 properties in Betton Hills was worded for a federal loan program that ended in 1970.

The language essentially forbids anyone other than Caucasians to live in the neighborhood funded by federal money.

Another task force member Larry Rivers, who is historian and professor at FAMU, said the language was first written as part of government-sponsored racism. Twenty years after the Supreme Court ruled restrictive covenants were unconstitutional, the Fair Housing Act of 1968 made the language illegal.

Racially restrictive covenants have been challenged over the years, but have been ignored by potential home owners. 

“People are more conscious of that type of language and over a period of time people have worked to eliminate that,” Rivers said. “But overall, people during the 70’s and 80’s when that language was certainly still in there felt that their first priority was to get the house as long as that covenant didn’t restrict them from buying the house.”

TASK FORCE MEMBERS: Barbara Wright, Larry Rivers, Antonio Jefferson, Sue Dick, Katrina Tuggerson, Sen. Bill Montford, Rep. Lorranne Ausley, Adner Marcelin, Jami Coleman, Jasmyne Henderson, Marjorie Turnball, Mario Taylor, Mike Brezin.