Inside the quest to rewrite racist housing laws in a Silicon Valley town where homes go for $3 million

Source: Lauren Hepler: San Francisco Chronicle Staff Writer

“In a perfect world, we would have just removed them all across California,” McCarty said. “But we don’t know where they are.”

When Sonoo Thadaney-Israni and her husband signed the paperwork for their home in the hills above Silicon Valley in 1991, they were assured that the red flag in the fine print didn’t really matter.

The couple, who immigrated to the U.S. from India a decade earlier, had been surprised to learn that the deed to the roomy house just across I-280 from Stanford University in Ladera still included a ban on all owners and occupants “other than those of the Caucasian or white race.” There was one exception: “the keeping of domestic servants of any race” was protected by the 1950 covenant.

“Knowing you’re moving to a neighborhood to have a family, you’re like, ‘Whoa, what does this mean?’” Thadaney-Israni recalled. “You’re told, ‘Well, it’s not enforceable.’”

Homeowners all across the country have found themselves in a version of Thadaney-Israni’s predicament in the decades since discriminatory covenants were outlawed by the 1968 Fair Housing Act. But in the past year, after the murder of George Floyd and the ensuing racial reckoning, California policymakers and communities like Ladera have taken bigger steps to challenge the thousands of racist housing bans still estimated to be on the books.

In early November, after a year-and-a-half-long volunteer campaign, Ladera residents submitted a formal amendment to San Mateo County to replace the old racial restrictions on the titles to all 534 lots with a statement avowing that “the Ladera Community supports diversity, equity, and inclusion.” More homeowners could soon follow suit after California lawmakers approved AB 1466, a bill requiring real estate industry officials to notify buyers of any discriminatory covenants, make the county modification process easier and dedicate funding to identify remaining covenants in the state.

As Thadaney-Israni and her neighbors discovered, the current process to unwind the remnants of redlining can be expensive, confusing and time-consuming. And in affluent communities like Ladera, a former working class co-op where the median home now sells for around $3 million, digging into the past can also unearth new questions about today’s forms of segregation.

Utopia undone

The 260 acres of oak trees, wildlife and sweeping bay views that make up Ladera were first home to the Ohlone, then Spanish ranchers and Bay Area horse breeders. By 1944, when a group of Stanford professors and area nurses, carpenters and school teachers were scouting locations for a co-op amid a World War II housing shortage, the land seemed perfect for the nascent Peninsula Housing Association’s 400-family experiment in ecologically and socially harmonious homes starting at $10,000.

The problem: their plans for racial integration didn’t fly with construction loan funders and the Federal Housing Administration, historian Richard Rothstein wrote in his 2017 book “The Color of Law.” This was in the era of redlining, when banks and government insurers commonly blocked non-white land ownership in desirable areas, instead forcing Black, Asian, Latino and other minority residents into neighborhoods color-coded red on lending maps to denote high financial risk.

The co-op first attempted to skirt the issue with a 1948 quota assuring that the proportion of African Americans in the association would not exceed California’s overall ratio of Black residents. When that didn’t work and the project was still stalled by 1950, the crumbling co-op sold the land to a developer with the total ban on non-white occupancy.

In the process, the small number of non-white families in the co-op were forced to sell their lots — a fact that still haunts present-day residents like Thadaney-Israni.

“There were four families who had land, who would have been our neighbors,” she said.

Finding those families, and supporting an emerging grassroots campaign to amend the old covenants, became two of Thadaney-Israni’s top priorities last year when she launched a neighborhood diversity, equity and inclusion group following Floyd’s murder.

The idea of rewriting the racist language in local deeds wasn’t totally unprecedented. Ladera resident Bob Felderman set out to “clean up (his) own house” in the summer of 2019 after his teenage son read the chapter on the community in “The Color of Law.”

“He said ‘Is that us?’” Felderman recalled. “And I said, ‘Yeah, our house has this stuff on it.’”

Altering the covenant on his own home turned out to be complicated, even for a Google researcher like Felderman. Among the steps he took: ordering and paying for a certified copy of the covenant, physically striking out and rewriting the racist language, filling out a notarized “Restrictive Covenant Modification” form and refiling the documents to the county.

After the byzantine individual process, he was supportive but skeptical when a local named Leslie Wambach raised the idea last summer of amending all 500-plus deeds in the community. There was general support from the governing Ladera Community Association, she said, but it was up to volunteers to move forward.

Last fall, Wambach and fellow volunteers started consulting with attorneys, raising money from neighbors and cataloging every homeowner in the community — many of whom own their property in convoluted trust arrangements. They would need notarized signatures from two-thirds of named property owners, she learned, or about 700 people.

One motivation was the stark lingering divide that historic policies have fostered. Ladera is 86% white, 90% college-educated and has a median income of more than $250,000, Census estimates show. Compare that to East Palo Alto, one of the few areas of the Peninsula where non-white people were able to buy homes before the Civil Rights Movement, which is located 8 miles away and is about 88% non-white, 20% college educated and home to a median income around $67,000.

Ultimately, it was a Ladera community survey that revealed strong support for amending the covenants — including non-white neighbors’ comments about the sting they felt reading the documents — that pushed the project forward.

“I’m offended by this as a white person, but I’m not living this trauma day in and day out,” said Wambach, an architect. “It suddenly made me way more convinced that we had to do something.”

Signed and delivered

Growing up in East Palo Alto, Salvador Alvizar-Ibanez rarely had a reason to cross the freeways separating his hometown and the enclaves like Ladera that dot the foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains above I-280. That is, until Wambach offered the 32-year-old notary a job presiding over all the signatures she needed to collect this past summer.

All Alvizar-Ibanez knew about Ladera was that a local church had once given him a scholarship. He really got on board with the campaign once he, too, read about the region’s history of housing covenants and the segregation they entrenched.

“I was just in shock,” Alvizar-Ibanez said. “Like ‘Wow, this is happening in my own backyard.’”

By August, the group had a plan. They would launch the signature drive on the so-called “CC&R campaign” — short for “covenants, conditions and restrictions” in a deed — at Ladera’s first-ever pride parade in August. Volunteers set up two tables: one to attract residents, verify ownership and request donations, then a second where Alvizar-Ibanez would notarize each property owner’s signature.

They repeated the process every Saturday for two-and-a-half months, plus weeknights when neighbors hosted tables in their driveways. Reminders were blasted out on an email listserv and paper fliers. Residents showed up with kids, dogs and, in one case, a bright red parrot in a backpack.

It was on a Saturday in early October, outside the community pool and tennis court, that the group hit the required two-thirds signature mark. By the time the county officially recorded the amendment last week, the campaign had cost more than $14,000, Wambach said, and owners of 391 out of Ladera’s 534 properties had signed. Wambach has been advised that title companies should begin updating the language in the coming months.

“Hopefully this ignites other communities to do it,” Alvizar-Ibanez said. “I’m glad to be part of that movement.”

What next?

As the residents of Ladera racked up signatures, Assemblymember Kevin McCarty (D-Sacramento) spent the fall in the state capital trying to streamline the covenant modification process for other homeowners.

McCarty, who is biracial, said his family discovered an old discriminatory covenant when they bought their house in Sacramento years ago. Back then, he didn’t know how to address the old language superseded by today’s state and federal anti-discrimination laws. But this fall fellow lawmakers passed his bill to force real estate industry officials and California counties to improve the process to address lingering racial covenants.

Starting next summer, McCarty’s AB 1466 will require Realtors, title companies and escrow companies to notify buyers of any racial covenants, as well as their right to modify them. The bill also directs all California counties to move toward a standard modification form, and creates a new fund to identify and map remaining covenants statewide.

“In a perfect world, we would have just removed them all across California,” McCarty said. “But we don’t know where they are.”

For Thadaney-Israni, amending Ladera’s covenant and making good on the idea that “words matter” is just the beginning. She’s now searching for the families originally forced out by the covenant while planning new community celebrations for holidays like the Indian festival of Diwali — one everyday way to combat any lingering notion that “we all just fell off the Mayflower,” she said.

As for what comes next in a region where affordable homes are once again in vanishingly short supply, forcing Black, immigrant and working class residents to the fringes? That’s a battle that communities like Ladera, long isolated from major new development, must still decide if they want to fight.