Seg­re­ga­tion and the Forge

The act of get­ting rid of racist prop­erty covenants sends an im­por­tant mes­sage of in­clu­sion that is needed in a re­gion built on ex­clu­sion

Baltimore Sun - - FROM PAGE ONE -

Our view:

Be­fore Ali­son Kneze­vich’s story in The Sun on Sun­day, most Rodgers Forge res­i­dents prob­a­bly had no idea that the deeds on many of their houses con­tain covenants ban­ning non-whites from liv­ing there. The rule is legally un­en­force­able, and we sus­pect ti­tle com­pa­nies don’t high­light it among the piles of pa­per­work at clos­ing. Real es­tate agents prob­a­bly don’t men­tion it to prospec­tive buy­ers. The neigh­bor­hood as­so­ci­a­tion web­site has loads of in­for­ma­tion about other covenants re­lated to ad­di­tions (no), awn­ings (dark green only), win­dows (six-over-six panes), lawn or­na­ments and land­scap­ing (“se­date rather than gar­ish”), and on and on. The forced seg­re­ga­tion of the Forge’s early days doesn’t get a men­tion, but the home­page does have a pic­ture of a rain­bow-col­ored “all are wel­come here” sign in some­one’s yard.

In­deed, a ves­ti­gial bit of lan­guage in a doc­u­ment at­tached to a deed prob­a­bly seems al­to­gether ir­rel­e­vant to life in 2017 in what is gen­uinely one of the friendli­est, neigh­bor­li­est neigh­bor­hoods around. For most, bees in the Tot Lot sand­box or the pro­pri­ety of sav­ing just-shov­eled park­ing spa­ces af­ter a snow­storm are prob­a­bly more press­ing is­sues.

Yet nearly 70 years af­ter the Supreme Court ruled such covenants un­en­force­able, Rodgers Forge re­mains over­whelm­ingly seg­re­gated. The two cen­sus tracts that roughly cover the neigh­bor­hood are about 89 per­cent white, ac­cord­ing to the 2010 Cen­sus, and only slightly more di­verse than they were 10 years be­fore. In the same pe­riod, Bal­ti­more County went from 74 per­cent white to 64 per­cent. Legally en­force­able covenants aren’t keep­ing mi­nori­ties out of Rodgers Forge, but some­thing is.

It’s not that the neigh­bor­hood is some­how out of reach or un­de­sir­able. Hous­ing prices are rel­a­tively af­ford­able, es­pe­cially given the value propo­si­tion of low Bal­ti­more County taxes and good pub­lic schools. Crime is rare, and the lo­ca­tion is ex­cel­lent. And although Bal­ti­more Mag­a­zine called it one of the re­gion’s best-kept se­crets a few years ago, it’s not some tiny, ob­scure en­clave, ei­ther. Rodgers Forge has 1,800 houses and plenty of turnover as young fam­i­lies move in and out.

But in the un­spo­ken racial ge­og­ra­phy that is Bal­ti­more, there are white neigh­bor­hoods, and there are black neigh­bor­hoods, Jewish ones and (in­creas­ingly) His­panic ones. Peo­ple have con­tin­ued to seg­re­gate them­selves even as legal bar­ri­ers fall away. Not only has that fos­tered a lack of cross-racial un­der­stand­ing but it has per­pet­u­ated eco­nomic in­equal­ity as some neigh­bor­hoods ap­pre­ci­ate in value and some de­te­ri­o­rate.

The Rodgers Forge Neigh­bor­hood As­so­ci­a­tion took a small but im­por­tant step this week to change that. It voted to ap­pro­pri­ate $2,000 to start in­ves­ti­gat­ing what it will take to re­move the covenants, and it de­cided to in­clude a sec­tion on its web­site ex­plain­ing that the neigh­bor­hood to­day finds the lan­guage ab­hor­rent and is try­ing to get rid of it.

How is not com­pletely clear. Newer covenants in the neigh­bor­hood — ones that lack the racist lan­guage — in­clude a spe­cific pro­ce­dure for changes, which re­quires the ap­proval of just 50 per­cent of the neigh­bor­hood. But the ones with the of­fen­sive lan­guage in­clude no mech­a­nism for amend­ments. It’s likely, then, that they will be cov­ered by a 2004 state law. It set the de­fault level of com­mu­nity ap­proval for re­mov­ing such dis­crim­i­na­tory covenants at 85 per­cent, rather than the com­mon law re­quire­ment that, in ab­sence of spe­cific lan­guage for amend­ments, any changes to covenants re­quire unan­i­mous con­sent of the af­fected prop­erty own­ers.

But the re­quire­ment of demon­strat­ing neigh­bor­hood con­sent — whether it’s at the 50 per­cent level of the newer Rodgers Forge covenants or the 85 per­cent spec­i­fied in state law — is pre­cisely what makes this ef­fort worth­while. It’s one thing for a neigh­bor­hood as­so­ci­a­tion to is­sue a state­ment of in­clu­siv­ity. It’s an­other to make the ef­fort to go door to door, block to block to col­lect sig­na­tures re­nounc­ing dis­crim­i­na­tion. That sends a more pow­er­ful and tan­gi­ble pos­i­tive mes­sage than some old, un­en­force­able covenants writ­ten by peo­ple who are likely long dead sent a neg­a­tive one. We wish the Forge the best of luck in this ef­fort and urge any other neigh­bor­hoods with such lan­guage at­tached to their deeds to fol­low its lead.

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