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Bill would make removing racist property language easier

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By Corey Buchanan
Oregon Capital Bureau

Racist property language, which was typically written in the early 20th century, can be a difficult scar to remove.

A new bill introduced by Rep. Daniel Nguyen, D-Lake Oswego, aims to change that.

House Bill 3294 would essentially allow for a property owner to apply for the removal of racist property documents, replacing them with versions that do not include racist or other discriminatory language. The original property document would then be preserved by the state for archival purposes.

Nguyen noted that such racist covenants often outlawed Japanese, Chinese and Black Americans from owning property or staying on the property unless as a servant.

“Sadly this language was not uncommon for entire neighborhoods,” Nguyen said during a public hearing Thursday in front of the House Committee on Judiciary.

The federal Fair Housing Act, which was part of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, made such language unenforceable — but the deeds with the racist language remain.

“To be clear, this bill is not a mandate to require the county clerk to discover every single property deed, looking for this language. It’s a property owner-initiated process with the goal of making it easier to redact this offensive language … without impacting the chain of title,” Nguyen said.

A 2018 bill was designed to address this issue by eliminating filing fees for submitting a court order to remove the deeds. However, the process ended up requiring filing fees and may have necessitated individuals to hire a lawyer due to the difficulty of navigating it. The goals of the new bill are to eliminate those costs and create a process for removing material through county clerk offices. Julie Fahey, D-Eugene, proposed the 2018 legislation and is a sponsor of the new bill.

Lake Oswego High School history teacher Gerrit Koepping said that he tried to remove racist property language from a real estate document associated with his property in 2020 and found the experience extremely cumbersome. He noted that files are typically added to real estate documentation and county clerk offices are not accustomed to removing material. Koepping added that Washington adopted a similar law in 2021.

“There is no process under Oregon law that actually removes racist language from real estate documents,” Koepping said.

However, the new law may create more work for county clerk offices, and the Oregon Association of County Clerks sent in testimony with concerns about the bill.

For one, the association stated that “removing a recorded land title record removes history” and that “without an unalterable chain of title, buying, selling, and collateralizing real property becomes more difficult and expensive.”

Further, the written testimony asserts that county clerks are not in a position to absorb the costs associated with the bill. The association mentioned the high levels of inflation that exceed the growth of property tax revenues, leading to budget cuts and layoffs.

“As a result, please keep in mind that the costs of implementing this bill need to be fully funded,” the testimony reads.

When asked about these concerns, Nguyen said that his office is working with the county clerks and does not intend for the bill to overburden them.

“The intent is to create as little impact as possible and not overburden the existing workload that our county clerks would like to have,” Nguyen said at the hearing.

Elisabeth Zeller, who testified at the hearing, said the objective is not to erase history.

“We must confront what happened in the past and have the information and data available to historians, journalists and those who seek to understand where we come from. But the time and place to do that is not when someone is purchasing a home, a place they want someone to feel safe and welcome,” Zeller said.

Lake Oswego Mayor Joe Buck and City Councilor Massene Mboup also testified in support of the bill at the meeting. Buck noted that homeownership in Lake Oswego is already difficult to achieve and that those who do attain that milestone should not also have to grapple with property documents containing racist language.

“Our predecessors used legal means to insert these clauses into deeds and homeowners association CC&Rs (covenants, conditions and restrictions) nationwide. And now we have the opportunity to use legal means to restore the rights of all our community members, regardless of race, to be free from the indignity of this language and the deep hurt that comes with it,” Buck said.

Mboup, who is Black, said it was shocking to hear worries about the costs of the bill, adding that there was “money that had been taken for a long time from people like us.”

“It’s not a question of money. It’s a question of political will. You have the political will, you have the power, and power should be used only for good. Please use that power you have to support HB 3294,” he said.

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