Researchers unveil findings on history of housing discrimination in Northern Virginia

Researchers unveil findings on history of housing discrimination in Northern Virginia

An interdisciplinary team of researchers from Marymount University and the University of Mary Washington has officially released the website Documenting Exclusion and Resilience, which documents its ongoing research into the history of racially restrictive housing covenants across Northern Virginia.

Racially restrictive covenants limited who could own or use land based on race, nationality or religious affiliation. The Documenting Exclusion and Resilience research project confronts a common assumption – segregated neighborhoods evolved from a series of individual home purchase decisions.

Marymount University sociologist Dr. Janine DeWitt explained, “These covenants were commonly included in deeds filed in local land records offices across the country. Racial covenant use was prevalent in the creation of many Northern Virginia neighborhoods.

“The sheer volume of deeds we have identified with racial covenants counters notions of random usage,” observed retired housing attorney and Marymount alumna Kristin Neun. “However, this practice became illegal upon passage of the Fair Housing Act of 1968.”

Researchers unveil findings on history of housing discrimination in Northern Virginia

The team’s research details systemic actions that promoted racial covenant usage, including government policies, real estate industry practices and segregation laws. In addition to racial covenant identification and mapping, another major issue was helping the public understand the historical nature of this phenomenon.

“The demographic makeup of our region is very different today in comparison to the period that we are analyzing, in part because of major inroads made by civil rights and immigration policies after World War II,” said Dr. Krystyn Moon, public historian from the University of Mary Washington. “That being said, the residue of the practice of using racially restrictive covenants remains with us today, and inequities persist.”  

Although unenforceable today, many Northern Virginia home and business owners are unaware that their property’s history may have included a racial covenant.

“Quite a few homeowners have emailed us to share their experiences upon discovering racial covenants on their property,” Dr. DeWitt observed. “They are often surprised to learn how common these restrictive racial covenants were in our region.”

In addition, people often conflate racially restrictive covenants with other types of restrictive covenants, including covenants that limit lot usage for single-family homes.

“However,” Neun observed, “our research indicates courts and lawmakers typically treated each type of restrictive covenant as a unique provision to be evaluated on its own merits.”

The research team shared that identifying the systemic nature of these covenants for the Northern Virginia region was a major challenge.

“There was a steep learning curve within each jurisdiction, shaped by the unique context of that jurisdiction,” Dr. DeWitt said. “We expected the process of locating racial covenants to be relatively straightforward – it is anything but!”

“One hurdle that we faced involved working through the different records management systems used in each jurisdiction,” Dr. Moon added. “In Alexandria, for example, we had to use the actual deed books at the courthouse. While Arlington and Fairfax Counties had digitized their records, each jurisdiction used different software to manage their records. All of this impacted our overall momentum.”    

Once racial covenant data was collected, Marymount University sociologist Dr. Matt Bakker shared that the next challenge involved figuring out how to anchor the historic land records with a contemporary map.

“To create our maps, we had to find ways to link the historical covenant records we uncovered to current parcels using geospatial datasets publicly available from each jurisdiction,” he explained. “In instances where parcels had available real property code (RPC) data, it was easier to accomplish such links. However, in cases where parcels lacked an available RPC, quite a bit of work was done to parse the land records for subdivision details that could be used to successfully merge the datasets.”

The team’s ongoing research results can be viewed on the project website. An interactive web map displays the “choices” available for where people could live. Ultimately, the team believes that the Documenting Exclusion & Resilience map will underscore the importance of thinking about the local history of housing segregation systemically and regionally.