Removing racist restrictions could be made easier

John Whitmire

A bill was proposed in the Texas Legislature two years ago that sought to make it easier for homeowners to remove unconstitutional, unenforceable and discriminatory provisions from real property records.

State Sen. John Whitmire said he did not catch wind of the proposed legislation until late during the biennial session, which ended without it coming to pass.

This year, though, the longest-tenured legislator at the state capitol in Austin is determined to help the bill become Texas law, which would be welcomed by many of his constituents in his hometown of Houston. 

“It’s my priority among my priorities,” Whitmire said.

Whitmire has filed Senate Bill 214, which is identical to House Bill 485 authored by State Rep. Gene Wu of Houston, in the legislative session that began last month. If the bill makes it through both chambers and is adopted by state legislators, it would become Texas law on Sept. 1.

The legislation, first introduced two years ago by Wu, would allow homeowners in neighborhoods such as Garden Oaks and Oak Forest to more easily remove the racist provision in their longstanding deed restrictions that say only members of the “Caucasian race” are allowed to own homes in the communities or even live there. The restriction has been unenforceable for decades under state and federal law, but it remains in Harris County property records and continues to be an eyesore and embarrassment for residents of both neighborhoods.

“I would love it,” Oak Forest resident Ashley Cavazos said. “If this bill comes to pass, hopefully it provides a pathway for the entire neighborhood.”

Cavazos is the leader of a volunteer neighborhood initiative called Oak Forest Deed for Change, which aims to remove the racist language from the deed restrictions by amending and restating them through procedures outlined by the Texas Property Code. But the process has proven exhaustive, because updating the deed restrictions in the seven Oak Forest sections that contain the offensive language requires the approval of at least 75 percent of property owners in each section.

Cavazos and her fellow volunteers have started with Section 4. Eight months into the effort – which has included regular Zoom calls, pro bono work by attorneys in the neighborhood and a signature party – she said signatures have been obtained from only about 25 percent of the section’s property owners.

A second signature event is scheduled for 2-4 p.m. Saturday at 4205 Piney Woods Dr.

“The way the Texas Property Code is written, it’s set up for failure,” Cavazos said of efforts to amend the deed restrictions. “If we can continue to convince legislators to put something in place and make it easier, then I could say the work wasn’t for nothing.”

According to the existing language of the proposed bill, a property owner could remove an unconstitutional, unenforceable or discriminatory deed restriction by filing a petition in a district court of the county where the restriction is recorded. But Whitmire said the removal would only apply to the one homeowner, which would be cumbersome for courts and has drawn opposition from real estate agents and title companies.

Whitmire said the goal during the legislative session is to tweak the bill’s language so a petition filed by one property owner would apply to the entire neighborhood or an entire section within a neighborhood. He said the antiquated, racist provision in the Garden Oaks and Oak Forest deed restrictions is common throughout the Houston area and affects “maybe hundreds of thousands” of homeowners in the region.

“We’re going to try to improve it,” Whitmire said of the bill’s language. “People shouldn’t have to go to court.”

Knowing the bill is a work in progress and may not ultimately pass, Cavazos is cautiously optimistic and said the introduction of the legislation is at least a step toward removing the barriers she and her fellow volunteers have been facing.

Whitmire said State Rep. Jarvis Johnson, who represents part of the area in District 139, also supports the legislation and is working with him and Wu to see it to fruition.

“I think we’ll get some results,” Whitmire said. “We’ve just got to keep working it.”

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