By Dyer Oxley
May 17, 2018
There is a street in Tacoma that determines the fate of many. And it serves as a historical marker reminding the city of a shameful past which still affects modern residents.
“We have a street called 6th Avenue, where there is literally a $100,000 difference in sales price for homes based on which side of that street you are on,” said Anders Ibsen, deputy mayor for the City of Tacoma. “In certain neighborhoods in Pierce County there are 20-year differences in life expectancy between some of the richer neighborhoods and the poorer zip codes. All that is a direct reflection of historical and current racism.”
Ibsen, along with State Rep. Christine Kilduff, recently chipped away at one little-known corner of the region’s racist past – language hidden in covenants. These are the ownership documents passed down between homeowners, which can include requirements for the properties — bigoted requirements. The language can also be found in some home owner association agreements (HOA) and was used to segregate communities — known as housing segregation or redlining. Just as 6th Avenue historically divided Tacoma.
“In West Tacoma in particular, there are a lot of homes that have really ugly language written into their covenants,” Ibsen said. “Even my mom’s house has some of this stuff written, saying things like, ‘The house shall not be conveyed to members of the Hebrew or oriental race.’ Nasty stuff like that.”
Tacoma is not alone. Seattle, for example, has struggled with the same issue, where many homes north of the ship canal have deeds with sentences like: “No property in said plat shall at any time be directly or indirectly sold conveyed or leased in whole or in part to any person or persons not of the White race.”
Of course, this language has been unenforceable for decades under Washington’s discrimination laws. But that’s not the point, according to Ibsen.
“This language is hideous, it’s hurtful and the impacts of racism are still very real for many people,” he said. “….if you are a Jewish homeowner or an Asian American homeowner, and that language is in your deed, that is something that makes you feel inherently different and set apart.”
Washington’s new law
Tacoma residents have been pointing out the racist deed language more and more recently, and the very inconvenient process to change it. So Ibsen and Kilduff spearheaded an effort to pass HB 2514. It passed the state Legislature last session and it will go into effect this summer.
The new law makes it far easier for homeowners to remove racist language in legal documents without having to go through a costly process of getting a court order.
“It’s just a simple form you apply to your county auditor,” Ibsen said.
Tacoma housing boom and policy
It could come in handy as Tacoma experiences a real estate surge. Seattle’s economic boom has radiated out as far as Tacoma, where people are buying up homes at increasing rates.
“The more we can make it convenient for people disavow this language … these hurtful words, the more we can promote reconciliation and move forward to a better society,” Ibsen said. “Redlining was prevalent everywhere throughout the country. We never had Jim Crow in the Northwest, but we certainly had our share of racism as evidenced by this HOA language and covenant language.”
Ibsen argues that this is one corner of the racism issue modern leaders face, from the school-to-prison pipeline to law enforcement and community relations.
“All these things are connected and the more we can be aware of that, the more we can make better decisions and make better policy,” he said.
“This came at the instigation of our constituents and frankly it’s disgraceful we’ve waited this long,” Ibsen said. “You say “why?’ I say, why not? Why not 50 years ago? Better late than never.”