Bloomfield trustees review historic discrimination
By Kevin Elliott
Fifty-five years after discriminatory housing restrictions were prohibited by the Civil Rights Act of 1968, a plethora of Bloomfield Township property deeds retain exclusionary language that is now illegal to enforce.
On Monday, February 27, Bloomfield Township Clerk Martin Brook informed the public how property owners and property associations may formally address and abolish such language through a state law that recently went into effect.
“An example of such language would be: ‘neither the whole nor any part of the premises shall be at any time let, leased or rented to, or permitted to be occupied by any person or persons other than gentiles of the caucasian race; except that this covenant shall not prevent occupancy by domestic servants of a different race or nationality employed by the owner or tenant,’” Brook said.
“That’s an example of language that was placed in deed restrictions by developers and builders throughout the United States from the late 1910s to the late 1940s. That is a restriction that exists in this township. And there are others. I have reviewed many, many of them throughout the township.”
The law, the Discharge of Prohibited Covenants Act, was approved and went into effect in December of 2022. While such restrictions are illegal to enforce, the language still exists in many property records.
Brook, who first studied the issue three decades ago as a law student at the University of Michigan, said such restrictions exist throughout metro Detroit and most major American cities. However, because of the difficulty in removing restrictions from deeds, such language remains today, albeit unenforceable and illegal.
“In 1917, the U.S. Supreme Court said it was unconstitutional to have a zoning ordinance that discriminates in this way,” Brook said. “But people who have hate in their hearts and discrimination on their minds looked for other ways to implement their ideas, and restrictive covenants, which are contractual agreements, which started sprouting up throughout the country.”
In 1926, the Supreme Court found the agreements, which were private deed agreements and property association restrictions, were private agreements and permitted, enshrining the discriminatory practice into law. And, while local governments couldn’t enforce the agreements after 1948, it wasn’t illegal for private persons to simply refuse to sell property for discriminatory reasons, Brook said.
Under the new law, a property owner and/or homeowner or property-owner association, can discharge discriminatory language from deeds and association restrictions or covenants. Prior to the new law, such changes were difficult to achieve.
“It doesn’t fix what happened before, but it’s a statement about where we stand today on the issue,” Brook said, encouraging township residents and property associations to investigate whether such language exists in their records.
Oakland County Clerk Lisa Brown said online property records in Oakland County are available to 1964, while most prohibited deed restrictions were made prior to the 1950s. Property owners and associations may contact the Oakland County Clerk’s Office at 248.858.5697 to request a records search be conducted.
Brown said most deeds won’t include the actual language, rather a reference to former deed restrictions, requiring a search of the original plat or deed records.
“In removing or abolishing the language, there are two choices: you can record the form by itself, or attach the original paperwork,” Brown said. “In other words, we aren’t whiting out the langauge. We aren’t whitewashing history. It’s still there, but this acknowledges the language and that it is already un-enforceable.”
Trustee Neal Barnett said the home he purchased in Bloomfield Township was built in the 1920s, and included several discriminatory restrictions prohibited today.
“The language in there was so offensive, it was disgusting — but they sold it to me anyway,” Barnett said. “However, I don’t like to see it out there, and this is another step to make sure that it’s not condoned, and that people realize that this is not acceptable.”