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“No persons of any race except the white race shall use or occupy any building on any lot except that this covenant shall not prevent occupancy by domestic servants of a different race employed by an owner or tenant”. This language, taken directly from a property deed in West Hartford’s High Ledge Homes Development, started appearing in property deeds during the 1940s in Connecticut, along with many other northern states, in order to prevent minorities from moving into white neighborhoods. Real estate developers, homeowners and neighborhood associations wrote these restrictions, called housing covenants, for their developments. These discriminatory covenants excluded certain groups from housing areas in not just Connecticut, but throughout the northern United States as well.
Why Did Housing Covenants Exist?
In 1937, the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) came out with a report of Hartford’s neighborhoods evaluating them on a scale from A-D. The HOLC labeled areas with a high concentration of minorities D areas, and even areas with a small number of minority families often resulted in a C rating. This report documented how the racial composition of a neighborhood influenced the values of homes in the area. It caused whites to become increasingly worried about minorities moving into their neighborhood—they did not want their housing values to decline. In addition to this, the Great Migration of blacks from the rural south to work in industrial factories in the north greatly increased the minority population in Hartford beginning in the 1940s. This influx of blacks into the north, and the labeling of neighborhoods with minorities as declining or undesirable by the HOLC, contributed to the white flight into the suburbs of Hartford. Real estate agencies and homeowners were concerned about black neighbors causing a decline in property values in their new white suburban enclaves, so they started writing housing covenants into their property deeds. Due to these covenants, blacks were nearly eliminated from the suburban housing market during the 1940s.
Shelley v. Kraemer: Ending Housing Covenants
In 1948, restrictive housing covenants were deemed unenforceable by law in the Supreme Court case Shelley v. Kraemer because of the fourteenth amendment (the amendment that provides equal treatment to all citizens of the United States). Privately, people would still abide by the restrictive covenants in property deeds until the Fair Housing Act of 1968, even though they could not be enforced when taken to court. Since it is still legal to have these restrictive covenants in property deeds, many still remain today. The High Ledge Homes Development is one of five areas in West Hartford where these clauses still exist in a majority of the property deeds.
Interviews with Today’s West Hartford Residents
The Cities, Suburbs and Schools class from Trinity College interviewed citizens of West Hartford in 2011 about the restrictive covenants to see their perception of covenants that existed in the property deeds of their homes. The younger, new residents of the area reacted alarmed that they existed. However, Mary Everett, an elderly citizen in a West Hartford neighborhood was not surprised—she knew of the covenant when she purchased her home in 1970. Those who purchased their homes recently were more innocent to the discrimination, and said things such as, “It’s not something I would have expected in Connecticut…I grew up believing that [overt racism] was in the south”, indicating that younger citizens did not expect such overt racism in the north. These covenants have shaped Connecticut’s communities today, yet many are unaware of their significant impact.
Shelley V. Kraemer (Syllabus), 100 U.S. 1 (U.S. Supreme Court 1948).