North Star Journey

St. Paul joins effort to clear racial real estate covenants

A brick building on a street corner
Rondo Community Land Trust officials were surprised to find a racial covenant on their own headquarters, on Selby Avenue, and amidst St. Paul's historic Black community. The city is stepping up efforts to discharge the now invalid racial restrictions on property ownership and leasing. Trust executive director Mikeya Griffin thinks the covenant dates back to the property's initial construction in 1904.
Andrew Krueger | MPR News

Real estate can be full of surprises, but the Rondo Community Land Trust never expected this one: Their new headquarters at 1041 Selby Avenue had a deed covenant, specifically excluding people of color from owning or renting the property. 

That location is right in the city’s historic Black community, the neighborhood around what used to be Rondo Avenue, wiped out by the construction of Interstate 94. 

“The majority of the community had been historically Black owned, Black led,” said land trust executive director Mikeya Griffin. “It wasn’t just on Rondo Avenue. The community extended as far as Selby, sometimes almost to Summit Avenue. I am fairly certain that whoever was living there wanted to ensure that no person of color would ever be able to utilize that piece of property, knowing that it was smack dab in the middle of a Black community.” 

Griffin joined St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter, himself a son of the Rondo community, as well as city attorney Lyndsey Olson to announce Monday that St. Paul is joining 20 other Minnesota cities in the Just Deeds Coalition. The coalition is a group of Minnesota cities trying to root out race restrictions — long ago invalidated by law — that still linger on deeds used to record land ownership and transfer. 

The Rondo Community Land Trust was founded to counter some of the pernicious effects of those restrictions: historic housing segregation, disincentives to investment and difficulty for families to build wealth from one generation to the next.

The land trust holds property in the city’s historically Black Summit-University neighborhood to bring down prices, keep the area affordable and counter I-94’s legacy of destruction in a wide swath of St. Paul’s Black community.

Racial covenants have been widely known in the Twin Cities, but came under a new spotlight in 2016, when the University of Minnesota’s Mapping Prejudice project made an effort to inventory the practice locally. The project has since identified nearly 33,000 properties that have race-based restrictions written into their very legal basis in Hennepin and Ramsey Counties.  

Large swathes of St. Paul, particularly around Como Park and in Highland Park, have had such restrictions, long after the federal Fair Housing Act voided them in 1968. 

“They do still have a legacy that exists in the communities today that we can see in the geography and the built environment of our cities,” said Maria Cisneros, Golden Valley’s city attorney and a founder of Just Deeds, a group looking to expunge the restrictions.  “Discharging a covenant can be a very powerful act of resistance and repair. It's a tangible first step that any individual can take to place themselves in this history, and to reclaim the space as an equitable and welcoming space.” 

Hamline-Mitchell law school also said it was offering the services of student attorneys to help property owners work through the legal paperwork to remove the restrictions. St. Paul has a site for homeowners to investigate their own property history and look for help. 

This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment's Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.
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