CHEYENNE – When Sarah Pruis found a home for her family during their move from Laramie to Cheyenne five years ago, she was shocked by what she found in the deed to her new home: a clause prohibiting any non-white person from owning the property.
She was quickly reassured that the provision was only a part of the original deed, and that it was unenforceable due to the Fair Housing Act of 1968. But Pruis was still “mortified and disturbed” by its mere presence in the deed she was signing, especially given its potential toll on non-white families.
“We needed this house, obviously, so we signed, but my mind went to the Latinx military family that was selling us this home,” Pruis told members of the Senate Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee last week. “Had they happened to see this? Did they have to sign this? Did they then worry about what kind of neighborhood they were moving into, knowing their neighbors had signed this, as well?”
Pruis was testifying to lawmakers in support of House Bill 91, which would allow homeowners to remove such racially restrictive covenants from their real estate deeds in Wyoming. Sponsored by Rep. Shelly Duncan, R-Lingle, the legislation gained final approval from the Senate on Thursday and now heads to Gov. Mark Gordon for his consideration.
Duncan, who is a Realtor, recalled first becoming aware of the racist covenants, which can be found in housing deeds nationwide, in the late 2000s. As a Realtor in Torrington, she came across a covenant requiring any person of color to enter the house through the back door and to leave the neighborhood by sundown.
“They are unenforceable, but (my clients) were made to initial them,” Duncan told the committee. “And so, we’re all kind of sitting there looking at each other like, ‘Wow.’”
Without such a law on the books, individual homeowners must take their own actions to get such covenants removed from current versions of their deeds. Pruis told the committee that such a removal could cost her anywhere from $10,000 to $20,000 in attorney fees, along with additional hurdles.
“This is a really easy thing for us to do,” Pruis told the committee March 18. “I don’t really care how unenforceable this clause is. What I care about is no one should ever have to see it, going forward, put in their face. I care that it continues to restrict neighborhood diversity, even in Wyoming, and I care that it hasn’t been dealt with already.”
The history of such racially restrictive covenants is a long one in the United States, as Wyoming Realtors lobbyist Laurie Urbigkit explained. After the U.S. Supreme Court struck down local zoning ordinances that included explicit segregation language in 1917, white neighborhood associations began pursuing the same end goal through deed covenants.
In 1948, the Supreme Court ruled those restrictive covenants were legally unenforceable, though the language continued to appear in new deeds until passage of the Fair Housing Act, as part of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, formally outlawed any sort of discriminatory covenant.
The association of Wyoming Realtors was strongly in favor of House Bill 91 as a way to formally remove the unenforceable language from any ongoing deeds, Urbigkit told the committee.
“(The covenants) are unenforceable, they are embarrassing, they’re discriminatory and yet they exist,” Urbigkit said. “So, the bill creates a method to have those removed. ... It does not erase historic documents, but ends the perpetuation of racial discriminatory verbiage in our land records.”
Dale Steenbergen, CEO of the Greater Cheyenne Chamber of Commerce, also spoke in favor of the bill, arguing it also addresses economic development by promoting the state as an inclusive place.
“This starts placing Wyoming as a state that is welcoming to folks of all different backgrounds, all different colors, truly living up to that meaning of the Equality State,” Steenbergen said during the committee meeting.
After passing out of the Senate committee last week, House Bill 91 gained final approval from the Senate by a 24-6 vote Thursday, with some lawmakers opposed to the bill questioning the need for it, given such covenants are unenforceable.
The proposal will now head to the governor’s desk for his signature.