New Florida law, with its start in Tallahassee, targets outdated race restrictive covenants

Tamaryn Waters, Tallahassee Democrat

A new Florida law tears away the red tape associated with the removal of outdated and racist language embedded in certain real estate documents. Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the law (SB 374) last Friday after a yearlong effort that began in Tallahassee and gained legislative traction, although some say it’s but the “first step” in addressing a convoluted process.

The bill, sponsored by Democratic state Sen. Darryl Rouson of St. Petersburg, “extinguishes discriminatory restrictions from certain real estate documents, such as deeds,” according to the online summary.

Last summer, Tallahassee criminal defense attorney Anabelle Dias exposed a racially charged but unenforceable section of a seven-page covenant for a home she’d planned to purchase in Betton Hills.

It said, “No person of other than the Caucasian race shall own, use or occupy any property in said subdivision except that this covenant shall not prevent occupancy by domestic servants of a different race or nationality employed by an owner or tenant.”

The race restrictive covenant stems from a federal government loan program launched during the Great Depression. In 1939, developers Guy and Pat Winthrop used the loan program to build houses in the now-affluent neighborhood. While the Betton Hills Neighborhood Association and the city of Tallahassee supported removing the racist language, the effort required legislative action so that future home buyers would not be subjected to offensive language. The state already has laws addressing housing discrimination. However, Dias said the new law offers “helpful and progressive changes.”

“(It) allows an aggrieved person to commence a suit without having to first exhaust administrative remedies or petition for an administrative hearing, simplifying and expediting the process for challenging discriminatory housing practices,” Dias said. 

Community response to the residual racism ranged from shock, outrage and dismissal, as some said no change was necessary since race restrictions are no longer legally enforceable. Tallahassee attorney Jami Coleman, who represented Dias, said the goal was not to erase history. 

“Our goal was always to stop re-offending people over and over again,” Coleman said. “I think all change starts little by little. It doesn’t happen overnight and it certainly wasn’t created overnight.”

Coleman said supporters are hoping to craft a proposed implementation process during the next legislative session. A task force representing legal, real estate and business concerns, as well as elected officials, assembled in the aftermath of Dias’ social media post about the troubling covenant language. The group was called together by Bethel Missionary Baptist Church, where the Rev. Dr. R.B. Holmes Jr. is pastor.

“In a time of so much racial tension and upheaval, this community proved again what can happen when we all work together,” Holmes said. “This is remarkable, and I am so proud of the task force for their unwavering commitment to get this task to the finish line.”

Across the nation, a racial reckoning is rippling through the private and public sectors. A host of policy changes followed the murder of George Floyd, whose death in May while being apprehended by Minneapolis police for allegedly passing a counterfeit bill, sparked countless protests in the U.S. and a global call to end to police brutality.

State Rep. Loranne Ausley, D-Tallahassee, also served on the task force. She noted the bill unanimously passed in March. Considering racial unrest throughout the nation, she said there’s a long overdue “real conversation about racial equity and justice” taking shape.

“I’m very honored that we were able, in just one session, to come together, come up with the right language, and work across the aisle to get this done,” Ausley said. “Oftentimes, things like this take more than one session. So I’m just really gratified that we were able to make progress.”

The new law doesn’t provide clear direction on how offending language can be removed, who’s responsible for doing so, or where property owners or home buyers can go to start and finish the process. 

“I think there’s still some work to be done,” Ausley said. “Again, there’s a lot of parties involved in that when you’re looking at these types of covenants.”

In a letter sent last June to Dias, the Betton Hills Neighborhood Association — which includes the Betton Hills subdivision — condemned the race restriction deed covenants. 

“It’s really not just a Betton Hills issue or Tallahassee issue but it was a national program that got all this stuff going,” said Michael Brezin, the association’s president. 

Brezin said many residents were shocked to learn the covenant language still existed. “But it still helps a lot of white people understand that this has been going on for quite some time,” he said.

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