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Spokane Judge Rules In Restrictive Covenant Case

Doug Nadvornick/SPR

A Spokane judge has ruled against a homeowner who wants racially restrictive language removed from his home’s legal documents. The homeowner had sued to require the county to strike the language, but Auditor Vicky Dalton countered she doesn’t that authority.

The case was heard today [Friday] in Spokane County Superior Court.

Alex May and his family moved into the Comstock neighborhood in south Spokane about two years ago. In buying the home, they learned that their house and several others around it had a covenant attached by the builder in 1953 that forbade non-whites from buying one of the homes.

“I mean, I was shocked and surprised,” May said.

Even though the title company assured him that the language is no longer valid, he wanted it erased from the document.

“I get that it’s a historical document, but there are better places to capture history than in a living legal document," May said. "I’m trying to imagine how I’d feel if I was a minority or person of color trying to buy a house and that language was in there and somebody was like, ‘Oh yeah, don’t worry about that.’ That doesn’t strike me as feeling right.”

So May went to Gonzaga’s University Legal Services clinic to see what kind of recourse he has. Clinic director Rick Eichstaedt assigned a few students to work on the case and one, Connor Jepson, argued the case in court.

Jepson told Judge Steven Grovdahl that state law gives the county authority to remove racially discriminatory language from a property’s documents, those are the deed and title. Dan Catt, arguing on behalf of county auditor Vicky Dalton, said that the language can be removed from the deed. But he argued Dalton doesn’t have the authority to alter the fundamental documents, including the title, that tell the story of the history of a particular piece of property.  

Grovdahl sided with the county.

Now, Vicky Dalton says the order of the court will now be recorded with May’s property documents.

“In all likelihood it will include the offensive clause that will be brought back into the modern record now," Dalton said.

Whereas, she says, there’s another process that doesn’t require that a homeowner hire an attorney to strike language from a home’s documents. It’s a restrictive covenant modification document that homeowner can download from the auditor’s website, fill out, have notarized and return to the auditor’s office.

“That offensive clause would not be brought back into the modern record," she said. "It would just state there is the historical record that contains unenforceable discriminatory covenants.”

Dalton says 89 people in Pierce County have filled out and filed that document with their home’s historic record. So far, only one person has gone through that process in Spokane, attorney Phillip Wetzel.

“I was concerned that if a minority wanted to buy a house in our neighborhood, or my house, and saw that that they might be scared away and I didn’t think that was right," Wetzel said.

After the hearing ended, Eichstaedt said he didn’t agree with the judge’s decision and said he would consider an appeal.

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