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Racist covenants discovered in Bellingham

The covenants, passed on over generations, are no longer legal but still problematic.

BELLINGHAM, Wash. — Bellingham's exclusive Edgemoor neighborhood boasts multi-million dollar homes with beautiful views of Bellingham Bay. It's also a reminder of America's long, ugly history of racism.

"Let's take a moment and acknowledge, as human beings, the history of our nation," said Kristina Michele Martens, who recently became the first African American woman elected to the Bellingham City Council. "These things are artifacts of how this country was established and who was important and protected in those times."

She's referring to a neighborhood covenant for Edgemoor, discovered by Compass Real Estate agent Matt Goldman, that reads, "The premises shall be owned and occupied only by persons of the white race."

It was written October 28, 1949, and those words remain to this day.

"It's quite shocking that it's still there and it still gets passed from homeowner to homeowner," said Goldman, who discovered the language during a routine search of title reports for the agency.

When KING 5 approached the owner of the property discovered by Goldberg, she said she had no idea the offensive language was in her neighborhood covenant. 

Goldman believes that's the case with most people, adding the rules are no longer legally enforceable. 

Still, folks like Kristina Michele Martens say that isn't the point.

"Saying it isn't enforced anymore, or it doesn't matter isn't the same as saying we were wrong and we acknowledge that as a community we made this misstep. That's really all we're looking for."

Countless homes platted between 1930 and 1950 in Washington still hold those covenants. The problem is so pervasive that Gov. Jay Inslee signed a law mandating a search of public records to alert homeowners of their property's problematic history last summer.

"It's a small step to acknowledge historic segregation in Washington," Inslee said at the time.

Goldman said homeowners can determine whether their covenants are racist by contacting the county auditor's office. The process to have the language stricken involves two simple pages called a "restrictive covenant modification form," which is free.

A separate law that took effect Jan. 1 allows homeowners to have the offensive language permanently removed from the public record. That, however, involves an attorney and an order from a superior court judge.

Goldman acknowledges the real estate industry's "sordid history in shaping communities based on color and class." He hopes the work now being done will help his beloved city right those wrongs. 

"Making this statement now, moving forward without those things and saying we are committed as an industry to inclusivity and making an equal opportunity for everyone involved is a very important thing for us," he said. "This is an opportunity to do something about it."

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