Property deeds can include conditions or restrictions on certain land uses. For instance, some neighborhoods require houses to be built a certain distance from the street. 

When someone purchases a home, real estate lawyers often hire title companies to determine whether the property is subject to any restrictions, liens or other adverse conditions.

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Racist language in land deeds remains in approximately hundreds – and possibly thousands – of Erie County property records, an investigation by The Buffalo News has found. 

A homeowner may be able to find out if the land they live on was racially covenanted by consulting the legal documents they received when they purchased the home. But title companies often do not mention old racial restrictions when they provide a title abstract summary to homeowners, said James G. Burke, senior abstractor at the Holland Land Title & Abstract Co.

Reading the land deeds is the easiest way to find  restrictions. Land deeds are public records that can  be viewed at the Erie County Clerk’s Office at 92 Franklin St. in Buffalo.

In Rochester and Albany, there have been movements in recent years to scrub racist language from deeds.

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In 2020, the issue came to light in Rochester after the nonprofit group City Roots Community Land Trust and Yale Law School published a report that found racially restrictive covenants were “pervasive” in Monroe County. 

In the suburb of Brighton, neighbors launched an effort to remove racist restrictions from the  deeds of nearly 300 homes. The group also created a how-to guide on its website to spur other neighborhoods to take action.

In March, the state Assembly passed a bill that would require property owners to remove discriminatory deed restrictions before the next sale of their property. The bill did not come up for a vote in the Senate during the Legislature’s most recent session.

M. Deanna Eason, executive director of Housing Opportunities Made Equal, said the legacy of the deed restrictions is evident today.

Last year, HOME looked into 114 complaints of race-based discrimination, compared with 43 in 2020. But the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates that only 1% of people who experience housing discrimination file a complaint.

“There are people out there who would say, ‘What difference does that make? What does that change?’ ” Eason said about removing the racial covenants. “It shows that you’re putting forth an effort to say, ‘This ought not be here.’ What it does is it shows that you are making an effort now to actually right wrongs and do something about it.” 


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