Texas Church works to remove racist language from deed restrictions

By Lindsay Peyton

Ashley Cavazos’ current journey to correct a long-standing wrong started months ago – while listening to a sermon at her church, St. Stephen’s UMC in Houston. While her efforts are focused on one neighborhood, she hopes the outcome would have ripple effect on other areas of the city, the state and even the country.

It was Pentecost and the 70th birthday of her church. It was also the first Sunday after George Floyd’s death. That day, the Rev. Nathan Bledsoe spoke about racism and how it exists even in our own backyard, including on the deed restrictions of homes in the neighborhood.

“It’s worth noting, as we talk about these systemic issues and how deep they run and how problematic they are, that we talk about our own Oak Forest community,” the pastor said. “The vestiges of white supremacy are everywhere, not just in faraway places but as close as the contracts we signed for our homes.”

In the neighborhood, located north of the Houston Heights, the original deed restrictions state

that the land cannot be owned, leased to, given to or occupied by “any person other than of the Caucasian Race.” The clause notes that the restriction does not apply to servants.

When that prohibition was ruled unenforceable by the U.S. Supreme Court and made illegal by the Fair Housing Act of 1968, a disclaimer was added to the deed restriction. Still, the original language remains.

A disclaimer may not be enough to soften the blow of the hurtful language, especially for the individuals once targeted by the restrictions, Bledsoe explained.

“What does it say that we have not been willing or able in our system to remove lines that are blatantly racist from the deeds?” he asked. “Every time a house is sold to a person of color, they are confronted by the fact that technically they weren’t allowed to buy this house when it was built.”

In the sermon, Bledsoe challenged his congregation to consider ways that they could dismantle racist systems and help build the Kingdom of Heaven, which is more just and equitable.

Cavazos was so moved by the pastor – and she felt compelled to answer his call. “I decided I wanted to do something and take action,” she recalled.

She has resided in Oak Forest for about a decade. While she was aware of the racist language in the deed restrictions, she had forgotten about it over the years.

Not long after the Pentecost service, Cavazos started a Facebook Group “Oak Forest Deed for Change” with the mission to “remove the unenforceable racial clause in our deed restrictions in the Oak Forest community.”

“People started joining and saying they wanted to help,” she said. “I’ve just been blown away honestly by how things came together and how all the people pitched in and gave their time and resources.”

Cavazos also began talking to neighbors and spreading the word. Before long, the group was holding Zoom discussions and joining the HOA meetings. Jonathan Lowe, who is also a member at St. Stephen’s UMC, designed a web site to support the cause.

Bledsoe recruited attorney Danny Newman to help. The two became friends when they both attended Rice University, and Bledsoe officiated at Newman’s wedding.

Newman recalled that Bledsoe sent him a text, asking “What do you know about removing deed restrictions?”

“I wrote back, ‘How hard could it be?”

Before long, Newman learned that changing any part of the deed restrictions was actually beyond complicated. He asked Matthew Turner, an attorney with Baker Botts, to help.

“I thought this would be a walk in the park,” Newman said. “It’s just not.”

He explained that generally deed restrictions are created with good intentions – and are built to last. Changing them requires financial commitment and a ton of work.

Newman explained that there are two potential paths forward. One would require more than 50 percent of homeowner signatures in each section of Oak Forest. Then, the objectional language could be removed when residents meet to reapprove their deed restrictions. The only problem is that this process could take a decade to finalize.

Another option would require 75 percent of homeowner signatures in each section of Oak Forest. The signatures would have to be notarized, and the residents would then receive certified mailings for notification. Also, an ad in the newspaper would be required. The process would be time-consuming and expensive – and must be completed on a deadline.

The neighborhood group decided to keep both options open. They’re asking fellow residents to sign petitions for either eventuality. Cavazos hosted driveway signing events in January and February and is still working to gain more signatures.

Tracking down homeowners is a challenge, Newman explained. Sometimes, a property is owned by a trust or another entity that rents the property. Other times, residents are hesitant to commit.

“It’s a legal document that you’re asking people to sign that affects their largest investment,” Newman said. “I understand why they would be reluctant.”

Lowe explained that the Oak Forest Deed for Change started by focusing on Section 4 of the neighborhood, which has 64 homes. But locating 75 percent of the homeowners has been hard.

“It seems like it should be easy,” he said. “This should be simple. But in reality, there’s a difficulty reaching out to people.”

If the neighborhood group can be successful with Section 4, then they can move into larger sections, Lowe added. “It’s kind of a proof of concept,” he said. “Hopefully, it will be easier to get more signatures down the road.”

Because securing enough signatures is so challenging, Newman said that the group is pursing another alternative – the legislative process.

State Rep. Gene Wu, D-Houston, and State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, are both proposing bills this session of the Texas Legislature. Wu first learned about the deeds from members of an Asian-American group who purchased a property and were concerned about the restrictions.

Cavazos said both Wu and Whitmire are determined. “This is huge progress,” she added. “It is removing barriers. It’s a starting point – and it’s huge.”

Cavazos suggests that Texans voice their support of the bills to the legislators. This is not an Oak Forest issue, she explained. Similar racist language exists in deed restrictions for other neighborhoods in the city – and across the state. There are cases where neighborhoods have sought reforms from around the country.

In the meantime, Lowe is hoping to collect more Oak Forest residents’ signature and increase education about this remnant of racism in deed restrictions. “Word of mouth is really what’s going to help us get over the finish line,” he said.

Watching the neighborhood come together to work on positive change has been inspiring to Rev. Bledsoe. “In the world we live in now, a lot of times people don’t know their neighbors, aren’t connected to their neighborhood,” he said.

He explained that there is no reason to preserve this part of the deed restrictions – and its presence in only serves as an example of the presence of institutional racism in society. If it weren’t for the dedication of Cavazos and other volunteers, or the pro bono legal work of Newman and Turner, this undertaking would be nearly impossible, he added. And it shouldn’t be.

“I believe passionately in Jesus’ articulation of what the world ought to look like,” Bledsoe said. “Jesus describes a world in which there is peace because there is justice, in which the people who have been left out or pushed aside have full and total access to the things that they need to live fulfilling lives.”

That was Jesus’ vision for the Kingdom of God, the pastor explained. And the church has a role in making that vision a reality.

“Making things look more like the Kingdom of God, and the more like God would want them to look, is a part of our faith,” Bledsoe said. “Christians have a rich history of doing that.”

For more information, visit fixoakforestdeeds.org.