Restrictive housing covenants, which denied racial, ethnic and religious minorities the right to live in certain neighborhoods are a thing of the past. But in Montgomery County, their long-term impacts can still be felt.
The Mapping Segregation Project, a collaborative research project started several years ago by Montgomery Planning, has mapped out areas that used to be under these covenants.
While 100% of covenants written during the 20th century were written to deny housing to African Americans, Jews also suffered from restrictions.
According to Rebeccah Ballo, Montgomery County’s historic preservation program supervisor, 24% of restrictive housing covenants had clauses that specifically
Many covenants can be traced back to housing organizations that exercised discriminatory practices at the time, such as the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation and the Federal Housing Administration, Ballo said.
The Federal Housing Administration “overwhelmingly ensured loans for new construction in mostly white, suburban communities,” Ballo explained. “The FHA perceived neighborhood change — specifically racial transitions — as a cause for diminished property values, and advocated for the use of restrictive racial covenants.”
Here are six points from Ballo and the Mapping Segregation Project.
Antisemitic covenants first became widespread in the 1930s.
Covenants that restricted home ownership based on race date back to 1904, but they were used sparingly and largely applied to Black citizens. Jews did not start appearing on these covenants until the 1930s, when antisemitic sentiment was increasingly gaining ground in Europe and America.
Covenants were good for sales
Many of the neighborhoods that used covenants did so a selling point, taking advantage of widespread concerns among white Christians about racial and religious purity.
“A false narrative that racial and ethnic homogeneity sustain property values had taken hold in the minds of many Americans,” Ballo explained.
Jews and others were not wanted
One of the earliest antisemitic covenants in Montgomery County was established in 1933 by the Loughborough Development Corporation, which singled out “Semitic races” in their covenant. The developers intended to disallow not only Black residents, but Turkish, Arab, Persian and Jewish residents as well. Over time, many existing covenants expanded their reach to prevent Jewish home buyers from moving into their neighborhoods.
Montgomery County residents once sued to try to get a woman to evict her Jewish husband.
In 1947, five families in the Bannockburn Heights neighborhood in Bethesda filed a lawsuit to force Lucille Tushin, a Christian woman, to evict her husband, Aaron, because he was Jewish.
“The suit claimed irreparable damage caused by his occupancy in violation of the neighborhood’s restrictive covenant,” Ballo said.
The Tushins sought legal aid from the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, which attracted public attention. The five families withdrew their case a week after filing it due to the negative publicity they were met with.
The case inspired Meier Steinbrink, the ADL’s national chairman, to launch an investigation into restrictive housing covenants and how they affect Jewish people.
Restrictive housing covenants continued in force long after they were ruled unconstitutional.
Shelley v. Kraemer was a landmark case in the fight against restrictive racial covenants.
A man named Louis Kraemer filed a suit against the African-American Shelley family to block them from moving into a St. Louis community, according to the Supreme Court archive Oyez. In 1948, the high court ruled unanimously that covenants violated the equal protection provision of the Fourteenth Amendment.
However, Mapping Segregation tracks these covenants to as late as 1953 — five years after the Shelley v. Kraemer decision.
“Private property owners could continue to write them into their land records until the passing of the Fair Housing Act in 1968,” Ballo explained. While restrictive housing covenants were no longer considered legally binding, property owners would continue to use them to discriminate against Black people, Jewish people and many other minorities they viewed as “undesirable.”
Covenants were everywhere
Ballo isn’t the only one involved in the Mapping Segregation Project. Some 6,000 people have volunteered to contribute information about former covenants and help put
Across the Montgomery County line, Mapping Segregation D.C. takes on the much more difficult task of chronicling housing covenants in the District, which does not have extensively digitized records of its land ownership.
“It wasn’t surprising that we found so many covenants,” Ballo said. “When we started the project, there was a lot of discussion about what communities engaged in these practices the most. But the fact is that they were everywhere.”