AUSTIN (KXAN) — Robie Dodson has been working as a real estate agent in Austin for seven years. Unsurprisingly, as a realtor, she frequently encounters deeds.

“I don’t typically read them,” she admitted. “That’s just crazy. These are huge, long documents. But back in 2016, I did have to read one.”

That is because this deed had something written in it so abhorrent it stopped her in her tracks, she said. The home’s deed had a clause that stated no part of the property could be bought, sold or leased to anyone who did not have strict Caucasian blood.

“I was totally shocked,” Dodson, who is a white woman, said. Her client who was interested in buying the home was equally offended. “My client said they didn’t want a house that had that attributed to it. And so, they pulled away, and we just moved on.”

Racially Restrictive Covenants

The racist language Dodson found is called a racially restrictive covenant, and they are not uncommon in Austin.

Racially restrictive covenants were used in the first part of the 20th century by white homeowners to prevent people of color from moving into their neighborhoods. In 1948, the Supreme Court decided that these covenants cannot be enforced, however, the language remains on many deeds across the country.

 In 2021, the Texas House of Representatives passed House Bill 1202, which aimed to make it easier for homeowners to remove the covenants. HB1202 did not pass in the Texas Senate, but another similar bill, Senate Bill 30, did.

SB30 streamlines the process for property owners to remove racially restrictive covenants, but Texas House Rep. Erin Zwiener, D- Blanco and Hays, thinks the bill could be adjusted to make it even easier.

“It’s a step forward. It removes filing fees, it makes the process smoother, but it does still require every single property owner to have the capacity to know how to file this document with the court,” Zwiener said.

“I hope that we’ll pick up the ideas behind House Bill 1202 again in the next session, which would have allowed groups of homeowners and property owners to band together to remove these provisions as a group,” Zwiener added.

The Fair Deed Project

Though Dodson was offended by the language she had seen in the deeds of homes she sold, it wasn’t until 2020 that she decided to act.

In that year, Dodson was closely following the reporting on the murders of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd. On a day during the COVID-19 lockdown, Dodson and her husband went for a walk. While out, they passed an office space with a “For Rent” sign hanging in the window. Dodson thought the place could be great for her and her husband to work out of while the pandemic restrictions were in place.  

Dodson called the listing agent and got no response.

“So, I did what any really good realtor would do — I tried to get in myself,” she said.

“I’m literally trying to break and enter. I’m trying to get in the front door, trying to open the windows,” she continued.

Then something happened when she tried to open a window in the back of the building. Electricity jolted up her arms and stopped her, Dodson said.

“I just realized that if I had a different skin color, no doubt, the police should have been there.”

At that moment, she realized she had to do something.

“I looked at my husband, and I was like, ‘Well, I can’t change the world, but I do know that there are these things that say that you can’t buy a property if you don’t have white skin. Maybe we can fix that,’” she said.

Dodson started a nonprofit called The Fair Deed Project, which aims to find deeds that have racist language, educate property owners about it and mobilize them to have it removed.  

The organization started its efforts last week in a south Austin neighborhood where the deeds state the properties cannot be inhabited by Mexicans or Africans, Dodson said. They went to over 70 homes and dropped off flyers with information about racially restrictive covenants. So far, no one has called them, but Dodson remains hopeful that once homeowners are educated on the issue, they will be motivated to have the language removed.

Representative Zwiener agrees that mobilizing homeowners to get racially restrictive covenants off their deeds is incredibly important.

“Central Texas has a history of thinking of itself as very progressive, but unfortunately, there is a big legacy of racial discrimination here in Austin and the surrounding areas. Removing this language from our deeds is an affirmative step forward,” Zwiener said.

“The Supreme Court has certainly taught us this last year that we shouldn’t count on a ruling staying static. If we have things like these zombie covenants, we need to get them off of the books so that they can’t go back into effect in the future,” she added.