Racist Language in Old Housing Deeds Could Soon Go Away for Good in Orange County

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Jorge F. Rodríguez, an assistant professor at Chapman University, and his wife Esmeralda M. Rodríguez, an assistant professor at Laverne University, with their daughter Camila Valentina Rodríguez outside their new home in Santa Ana. They are the first Mexican family to own the property.

Less than 100 years ago, many homes in Orange County couldn’t be sold or rented to Black, Brown, or Asian people because of racist restrictions in the properties’ deeds.

Some of that discriminatory language — while no longer enforceable — can still be found in those housing documents and records today. 

But perhaps not for long. 

Last month, Orange County’s Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to rid any remaining racist language from such records across the region as they’re found and re-recorded.

As part of their public vote, supervisors directed county Clerk-Recorder Hugh Nguyen to expedite the removal of those provisions and come up with a system to alert property owners of potentially offensive language in their deeds, giving them a chance to remove it before the deed is checked off by the county.

Nguyen under the supervisors’ move will also cooperate with District Attorney Todd Spitzer in criminal investigations into people who knowingly or intentionally file such racist and restrictive property language or records. 

Julio Arana, a real estate agent in the county who looks to promote equity in homeownership, has already seen and dealt with this issue firsthand for years. He said it feels great to be selling homes to people of color that less than 100 years ago wouldn’t have been on the market for anyone who wasn’t white.

“A lot of Orange County was not accessible to people of color with exception of your old old school barrios, like Delhi in Santa Ana, El Modena in Orange and around the Valencia area in Fullerton and La Habra. There were only a few places where people of color could buy,” said Arana.

An example of a discriminatory provision in an old housing deed, provided by Julio Arana.

The move to get rid of the racist verbiage was put forward by Republican Supervisor Andrew Do, running for reelection this year in a district that spans stretches of nonwhite communities in Santa Ana and Little Saigon and features a Democratic tilt in registered voters

“This year’s events have led all of us to really have to look at our world in a different light with a fresh set of eyes on issues of systemic racism both past and present,” Do said publicly, before the vote. “The time is long overdue for us to do everything we can to address and work to overcome systemic racism.”

Yet the truth about Orange County, he said, is that racism is still “embedded within our official records, such as deeds on real property and remnants of some prior practices that are discriminatory.”

Arana said one has to dig for the original deed of the home to find the discriminatory language.

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Realtor Julio Arana sells houses to people of color in Orange County that once could only be owned by white people.

“If the house is built in the 30s, 20s, and 10s and you do the research on it you’ll find it,” Arana said. “There was a particular housing covenant that prohibited Mexicans, and Japanese people from purchasing certain property in Orange County.”

The historic fights over the legality of such housing barriers can be traced back to this region.

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

The Rodríguez family’s house has a covenant – no longer enforceable – prohibiting selling or leasing the property to Mexican and Japanese people. Jorge Rodríguez says the covenants are proof of racism in the U.S. and that residents should be made aware of the discriminatory language present in housing deeds.

In 1943, Alejandro Bernal, a Californian native, moved his family into a Fullerton neighborhood. Bernal’s neighbors tried to use the segregation housing covenants to get them removed from his home and so he took them to court.

The Orange County Superior Court ruled in favor of the Bernals with the judge citing the 14th amendment. 

In 1948, the Supreme Court also ruled that racially restrictive housing covenants violate the Fourteenth Amendment. Despite the ruling, such language still exists in county recorded property documents today, likely without homeowners’ knowledge, according to staff in a report. 

While the provisions don’t have teeth anymore, their existence “keeps alive vestiges of unfair past policies,” staff’s report adds, continuing:

“America has changed, and so has Orange County.”

Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at [email protected] or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.

Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member at Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at [email protected] or on Twitter @photherecord.