Asheville Area Habitat for Humanity was shocked by the deed to a parcel of land they were developing when they came upon the part that read: this property cannot be sold to “any person of the colored race.”
As an organization that condemns structural racism in the housing system, Asheville Habitat did not want to transfer this deed to another owner with this abhorrent language. In addition to seeing what could be done about the racist language in the deed, the nonprofit builder was motivated to learn more about racially restrictive covenants and how they shaped local neighborhoods, and share what was learned with the community.
The first step was a deep dive into learning the history. When discussing race and housing, “redlining” is the concept most familiar to Americans. Another common but less familiar form of de jure segregation — or segregation through laws and policies — can be found in racially restrictive covenants. In the early twentieth century, competition for housing and jobs in American cities led to deadly racial violence. Covenants were a legal tool for property owners and developers to segregate neighborhoods.
“Asheville really leaned into (usage of racial covenants),” Buncombe County Register of Deeds Drew Reisinger said. “I often see them written in documents throughout everything from the 1910s all the way up to the 1970s.”
Homeownership is the primary means to building wealth in this country, but federal, state, and local housing policies built on restrictive covenants prevented many Black Americans from owning a home. The effect is obvious in today’s disparity in homeownership rates. According to a recent report from Land of Sky Regional Council, only 38 percent of Black households in Buncombe County own homes compared to 74 percent of whites. As a result, the racial wealth gap is as wide today as it was in 1968, when the Fair Housing Act finally outlawed racist deed covenants.
These racist laws and policies shaped the way Asheville looks today.
“Asheville neighborhoods are the way they are because they were designed that way,” Asheville Habitat Executive Director Andy Barnett said. “As we learn this history, we realize that the belief that ‘deep down people want to live around people that look like them’ is just a myth.”
Habitat’s integrated neighborhoods disprove this myth.
“We just don’t see these (Habitat) neighbors resegregating over time,” Barnett said. “These neighborhoods continue to be thriving and vibrant places that remain racially integrated.”
Next, Asheville Habitat needed to learn what to do about this specific covenant. They contacted Pisgah Legal Services and the Buncombe County Register of Deeds to learn how to remove this language. While North Carolina does not allow language to be removed from property records, Pisgah Legal was able to draft a termination of the covenant that highlights its historical context and condemns its use.
Habitat filed this termination when they recorded to the new owner the sale of this Green Built Home. Kel Compton, a Black woman, and her young daughter, now call this house home. Compton is excited to be close to her job and her mother. Her housing is stable and she no longer worries about rising rents.
“I think it just opens up opportunities for (my daughter),” Compton said. “For one, it’s kind of paving the way for her to eventually own a home one day. If it’s not my home, she’ll just be motivated because her mom owns a home.”
Finally, to share what they learned, Habitat created the film, “This Divided Land,” a 19-minute-long documentary that presents the history of racist housing policies by exploring racial covenants and how they set the stage for federal discriminatory policies like redlining.
In the film, local leaders describe the power of homeownership and share solutions.
“There’s just a different sense that you have about yourself, your family, your community, when you have homeownership,” Shiloh Community Association President Sophie Dixon said.
“When you talk about not being able to get homes … when you did have a home, you had something to leave behind,” Hood Huggers International Owner DeWayne Barton said. “You had resources, you had land to pass down to the next generation and now I think we got to be thinking the same thing. Let’s build out these spaces, but not just build them out for now, but build them out and train the people behind us so they know the value of the space.”
Overcoming the legacy of housing segregation requires painful, honest discussions and accountability.
“In order to level the playing field, we have got to correct these institutions that we have,” County Commissioner Al Whitesides said. “And we can’t think about, ‘ok, we’ve closed the achievement gap in the schools, ah, we can sit back and relax.’ No, we still have the housing, we still have the criminal justice system, we still have the health disparities.”
Asheville Habitat hopes “This Divided Land” furthers the painful, honest discussion. Shining a light on this example of systemic racism will educate the community and encourage people to support Black communities and organizations working to dismantle racist systems.
Maddy Alewine is the communications specialist for Asheville Area Habitat for Humanity. She has worked since 2017 for the local nonprofit, which builds and repairs homes, operates two ReStores, and offers deconstruction services. She shot and produced the 19-minute-long documentary, “This Divided Land,” which presents the history of racist housing policies. Connect with Maddy at ashevillehabitat.org.
You can also view this article as it was originally published on page 54 of the 2021-22 edition of the directory.