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State Land Court Lets Homeowners Repudiate Racist Covenants in Deeds
By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff
04:22AM / Friday, August 19, 2022
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A Black Lives Matter sign at Colonial Village in 2020. The homeowners have been trying to remove a 90-year-old private covenant put in place to keep Black Americans out of the housing development.

WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — State Rep. John Barrett III could not get state law changed to allow homeowners to strike racist language from their deeds.
 
But he came pretty close, and the effort shed light on a problem that those homeowners can address, free of charge, in the documents that define their real property.
 
"As the Land Court put it, it's a win-win for everyone," Barrett said recently.
 
Back in 2020, he authored House 1465, a bill that would have allowed property owners to "request the Land Court to expunge a provision made void by this section."
 
The provisions in question were the sort that were created in the 1930s to prohibit homeowners in certain neighborhoods from selling to Black people or members of other named groups — frequently, in Massachusetts, people of Irish descent.
 
The racist "covenants" as they often were called remain on the books to this day, even though 70 years of case law and statutes at the federal and state level make those agreements unenforceable.
 
A group of Barrett's constituents in Williamstown's Colonial Village development began talking about the covenants in the summer of 2020 and brought them to his attention.
 
Barrett introduced the legislation, which ultimately garnered 50 co-sponsors and appeared headed to easy passage in the full House of Representatives.
 
It was on the cusp of a vote when legislators heard concerns that expunging the covenants from the official record would be tantamount to "whitewashing" a disturbing piece of the commonwealth's history.
 
The solution: homeowners now can fill out a one-page form, "Complaint to Declare Certain Provisions Void," that they can file for free with the Land Court.
 
After an administrative review, the Land Court judge will "order the entry of a declaratory judgment declaring such provision void, and/or ordering the entry of a new or amended certificate of title, the entry or cancellation of a memorandum upon a certificate of title, or any other relief upon such terms as the Court may consider proper."
 
The language recognizing the racist restriction's existence as well as its non-enforceable legal status will be attached to deed going forward.
 
"It allows the homeowner to repudiate [the covenant] and, at the same time, those who are worried about the historical record will still be able to see it," Barrett said.
 
"It made sense to me, and when I went back to speak to a few of the [Williamstown] residents, they were pleased with it. They did not want anyone to think they were ever associated with such a horrible thing, and most didn't know it was in their deed.
 
"It worked out well. Everyone seems pleased with it."
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