If you gathered every property record amassed by Santa Clara County since its incorporation in 1850 and stacked them on top of each other, the pile would soar to the height of Mount Everest. It could wrap around Apple’s spaceship-like headquarters roughly five times – or run parallel to Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International Airport’s runways back-and-forth three times.
You get the picture – it’s a lot of paper.
And for two employees in Santa Clara County, that stack is their main focus for the next five years. They face the daunting task of reviewing every property record for discriminatory language that excluded nonwhite residents across the state and country from buying and settling in certain areas, contributing to today’s segregated neighborhoods and racial wealth gap.
A state law passed last year requires counties to review all documents, even though court battles and fair housing laws prohibited such discrimination over a half-century ago. Where such language is found, counties must draw a heavy line through it.
“It’s very focused work,” said Genevieve Singh-Hanzlick, who is managing the project. “But once you get used to what you’re looking for, you find it.”
Wearing white cloth gloves, she points to a record her team has flagged for redaction, a deed from a home in San Jose that only allowed white residents to live there.
So far, Singh-Hanzlick’s team at the Clerk-Recorder’s department has found about 400 instances of discriminatory language. They’re currently zipping through microfilm of property records from the 1920s, an era prevalent with racist laws that systemically barred Black, Asian, Jewish and other minorities from buying property. When such language is found, the county duplicates it and redacts the racist paragraphs. An original copy of the document is kept for historical purposes.
Known officially as restrictive covenants, the practice became unenforceable at the end of the 1940s in response to the landmark Shelley v. Kraemer Supreme Court case, which found the rules violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. It took another two decades for the federal government to pass the Fair Housing Act, which outlawed the covenants completely.
Some county residents, poring over property documents provided when purchasing their homes, have been floored by the language they find.
The paperwork for David Menestrina’s 1947 ranch-style Los Altos home had an exception for nonwhites who were “domestic servants, gardeners or chauffeurs,” but otherwise barred people of color from ownership: “No person of African, Japanese, Chinese, Hindu, Indian, Korean, or Mongolian descent or person not wholly of the Caucasian race shall be permitted or suffered to purchase, own, lease or occupy said property.”
“It made me sick,” Menestrina said. When he first read it two years ago while purchasing the home, he went to the county to have the language stricken.
Before the law changed, Californians were able to submit their own property records for such changes. But Santa Clara County officials said it was unusual for residents to proactively send in documents for editing. In September of last year, the state required counties to take on the work themselves after the passage of AB 1466. In addition, the law also requires real estate agents to tell homebuyers when their new property contains restrictive covenants.
In Santa Clara County, the job is not an easy one.
For starters, the documents aren’t all in the same format. The earliest documents are in massive bound books with words written in calligraphy-style handwriting. Others were created on manual typewriters, while more recent ones are digitized or only found on microfilm or microfiche. The goal is to eventually have everything digitized so the team working on the project can simply pop key search terms into a computer rather than scanning manually.
So far, the county appears to be off to a slow start.
They’ve managed to review about 100,000 pages of records, which represents a small slice of the 8.4 million they hoped to get through by the end of the year. The goal is to complete the review by 2027.
Assistant County Clerk-Recorder Louis Chiaramonte said he is confident the county will be able to meet its targets. The cost – projected to be $700,000 for the first year of the project – is being funded through a $2 fee established by AB 1466 that property owners must pay when the county processes their documents. Some county general funds may be needed if the new fee doesn’t cover the project’s costs, Chiaramonte said.
Other counties in the Bay Area, including Marin, are also getting to work. At the end of October, officials said they had identified 800 parcels that needed to be fixed and have created a website to track their progress.
The time commitment and cost also raise the question: What is the value of editing the documents since the restrictions aren’t enforceable?
Analilia García, who oversees the county’s equity and inclusion office, said the effort sends a message that local governments are trying to atone for a wrongdoing that had long-lasting consequences. Others, like Stephen Menendian of UC Berkeley’s Othering & Belonging Institute, has described the effort as unnecessary and said the time would be better spent tackling contemporary racial justice issues such as zoning reform and investments in affordable housing.
Menestrina, the Los Altos homeowner, acknowledges there may not be a practical reason for sifting through mountains of records. But, he said, there is a moral argument to be made for doing so.
“In the past, we had bathrooms that were for whites only,” he said. “When the law changed, we didn’t put up a sign that said, ‘Ignore the sign.’”
He added: “It is a wrong that should be righted.”