Racist deed restrictions remain in northeast Johnson County but erasing them has proven difficult

racist deed restrictions

Though racist language remains in the Prairie Village Homes Association's covenant, Todd Harris, a Prairie Village resident and member of the city's diversity committee, said there are other problems the committee should focus on — such as affordable housing — that impact people of color and have nothing to do with the deed restrictions. Photo credit Juliana Garcia.

Two northeast Johnson County cities appear to have come to a standstill in their efforts to eradicate racist deed restrictions implemented decades ago by developer J.C. Nichols. Nothing more can be easily done, they say, and residents have mixed feelings about what should happen next.

The U.S. Supreme Court has found racially restrictive housing covenants — instituted primarily in suburban communities across the U.S. in the middle part of last century — to be unenforceable.

In recent years, Roeland Park and Prairie Village have made moves to try to erase language that excludes Blacks, Jews and other racial and ethnic minorities from homes associations’ deeds within their boundaries.

But the cities have discovered that, aside from denouncing the restrictions, actually erasing the racist language will be difficult.

Last year, Roeland Park approved an amendment to its non-discrimination ordinance outlawing racist covenants, a move that one Black former city councilmember called a “vanity measure” with no real teeth.

Meanwhile, Prairie Village’s newly installed diversity committee has been discussing the issue since October, and one member recently pushed others in the group to ask themselves if there are larger issues on which they should be focused.

“As a Black man who lives in the community and owns a home in the community, frankly, the last thing I’m worried about is that deed or that restriction,” committee member Todd Harris said during a recent meeting. “I’m more worried about affordable housing. The reason why more people who look like me don’t live in this community is because there’s no place affordable to live.”

Harris told the Shawnee Mission Post the restrictions are terrible and not a good look for Prairie Village. Still, he said there are other problems that need solving “that have nothing to do with words on a paper that were written 50, 60, 70 years ago.”

The roadblocks

Racially restrictive deeds and exclusionary covenants are still scattered across the Kansas City metro, embedded deep in the bylaws of homes associations and subdivisions’ rules. They’re no longer enforced and homeowners are often unaware they even exist, but some residents and city officials say their lingering presence is a stain on their communities.

In Prairie Village and Roeland Park, both cities are running into issues trying to erase racist language from local deed restrictions, though for different reasons.

racist deed restrictions
Famed realtor and developer J.C. Nichols used racially exclusionary covenants in many of his developments a century ago, as residents moved from Kansas City, Mo., to suburban areas in Johnson County.

The Prairie Village Homes Association, incorporated by the J.C. Nichols Company in the 1940s, is the only HOA in that city that contains racist deed restrictions. All that is legally required of the PVHOA is to file an amended deed restriction, which has been done.

There’s no state statute that would allow the city to go in and remove the restrictions as if they never existed.

Roeland Park, on the other hand, doesn’t know exactly which subdivisions and corresponding deeds within its boundaries actually still include racist language. This is because there are no active homeowners associations in the city. There are about nine subdivisions — any of which could have racist deed restrictions still in their covenants.

If Roeland Park wanted to erase these restrictions, the city would first need to figure out which homes exactly are governed by the offending restrictions, then go through a lengthy process to eradicate the language that would include reactivating HOAs and creating new covenants.

A debate in Prairie Village

A majority of Prairie Village’s diversity committee initially shared the mindset of members like Jameelah Lang, who said the committee could stop at what is legally required or go further and request additional steps be taken to erase racist deed restrictions for moral and ethical reasons.

Melissa Brown, another committee member, suggested if there’s nothing that can be legally done, maybe it’s time to change the laws at the state level.

But the committee’s feelings changed after Harris expressed his concerns about where to spend time and energy in order to truly impact the city. Although Brown said she appreciated Harris’ challenge to consider its priorities, she said she latched onto the concept of erasing deed restrictions because she wants to see a more diverse Prairie Village.

Prairie Village Homes Association near 72nd Street and Roe Avenue
Some Johnson County cities have come to a roadblock with attempts to erase racist deed restrictions enacted by J.C. Nichols decades ago. Pictured above are homes in the Prairie Village Homes Association, where racist covenants still linger in residents’ home documents.

“If [deed restrictions] are not something that’s preventing that from happening, then we don’t need to spend a ton of time on it,” Brown said. “But it seems to me that there’s this trace of historical racism that is still lingering.”

Cheryl Murphy, a Prairie Village Homes Association board member, told the committee that the PVHOA wrote a statement to its umbrella company, Housing Association of Kansas City, stating its dissent against the racist language still on its books.

“It is important to our HOA that people know we don’t condone this language,” Murphy said during the committee meeting. “We can’t change it, we can’t remove it, but we can certainly tell people we don’t condone it.”

Ultimately, the committee decided to move forward with exploring options for erasing the restrictions including taking the issue up with state legislators. Additionally, an education-focused option up for discussion is a plaque at Porter Park stating racist covenants are no longer practiced or tolerated.

Roeland Park’s unique situation

Prairie Village’s options may be limited as the HOA with racist covenants has done all that can be done, legally, but Roeland Park is in a slightly different situation.

The city’s March 2020 non-discrimination ordinance amendment outlaws racist deed restrictions, but the city doesn’t have any active HOAs — and would have to go through the following process to erase an unknown number of racist covenants:

  • First, Roeland Park would need to identify which subdivisions and plots within the city have racist covenants. There are at least nine subdivisions in Roeland Park, Mayor Mike Kelly said.
  • If the covenants are assigned to an HOA, the city would have to reactivate the association requiring all impacted residents to be notified.
  • The city would then need to identify residents to act as the HOA’s officers.
  • All residents would need to be given a written notice about deleting the current covenants.
  • Then, new covenants — not racist ones, but ones people still want to keep such as prohibiting commercial buildings, for example, — would need to be created and submitted to the county’s deed recorder.
  • Finally, the city would have to go through the legal process to disband the HOA.

Before any of the above can happen, Kelly said there would need to be significant community interest to go through the process before the city spends the legal fees and allocates the bandwidth to do so. The city went through this process more than a year ago with Roe Manor Heights, south of 55th Street and near R Park, Kelly said.

The city’s Ad hoc racial equity and inclusion committee continues to discuss racist deed restrictions, and lists it as one of the committee’s top 20 priorities. Still, Kelly said the committee finds the lengthy process to be “terribly frustrating,” and is leaning toward addressing things “closer in [its] grasp” at this time.

“I think that everybody thinks that this should be a simple win, because everybody knows that these deed practices are abhorrent — and it’s a stain on the history of Roeland Park and Kansas City,” Kelly said. “At the same time, they recognize the process and it’s frustrating that it can’t be simpler.”