Roeland Park reviews options to remove racist language from property records

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ROELAND PARK, Kan. — Roeland Park city leaders are searching for ways to remove discriminatory language from property-related documents on homes throughout the city.  

City Attorney Steve Maurer said initial research done on properties within the city showed racially discriminatory language was found in three types of land related documents: plats, deeds and covenants and restriction agreements created by homeowner associations. 

“We cannot change the publicly filed documents. They are there; they are a part of our history. We cannot erase them from the Johnson County Recorder of Deeds’ Office. We can, if the council would so choose — we can take a series of steps so that it’s not the top document,” Maurer said 

Plats 

When a developer wants to subdivide a piece of land to build a series of homes, they are required to file a plat with the city. A plat is a document that outlines the acreage of the land, where lots will be divided for individual homes and where streets would potentially be. 

A preliminary review of the recorded plats showed that four plats in Roeland Park contain racially discriminatory language that prohibited lots from being sold to a person of color.

Maurer said much of the restrictive language was rooted in white flight.

“Back in the 1930s and 1940s, there was clearly in the Kansas City metro white flight. People were leaving, predominantly Kansas City, Missouri, moving to Kansas, mostly Johnson County, to get away from African American problems that they deemed to be problems in Kansas City, Missouri,” Maurer said. 

Excerpt from the Elledge Heights neighborhood plat

In 1948, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that racially restrictive covenants were illegal. Despite racist language currently existing in some plats within the city, these housing stipulations cannot be legally enforced. 

To eliminate restrictions on an existing plat, a new plat must be created to replace it. Replatting a property requires a new survey to ensure the property is up to current standards. Then the city would be required to obtain a signature from every property owner within the plat to change the plat. 

The option to replat the properties is estimated to cost the city approximately $190,076 to complete. That estimate does not include any costs associated with getting signatures from existing property owners. Maurer estimates it could take three to five years to complete the process.

Deeds

When a person buys a piece of property, the proof of ownership for a specific parcel of land is called a deed. According to Maurer, the city took a random sample of deeds and discovered three that contained discriminatory language. 

In the 1920s and 1930s, deeds were hand written documents. The sampled deeds contained housing stipulations written in by the owner at the time.

Example of deed containing racially restrictive language

Maurer said each deed found with restrictive language had been written with a built-in time limit and had all since expired. The example above had a limit of 15 years.

As a title is transferred with the sale of a property, the expired or unlawful restrictions are excluded from the deed going forward. Maurer said because of the expiration or elimination of the restrictive language, it’s unlikely the city would need to take any action to amend any deeds. 

“Unless you have somebody residing in a home that’s been in that home since the original sale, we are confident that that deed does not contain an actual, current, effective legal restriction against anyone of negro blood, other than Caucasian, African decent, or any other such offensive language,” Maurer said.  

Covenants and Restrictions from HOAs

When a subdivision is established, the developer may create a Homeowners Association (HOA) and lay out covenants and restrictions for the use of the homes on the property. 

The city discovered racist language pertaining to six neighborhoods: Buena Vista Heights, Clarkhurst, Golf Crest, Mission Park, Roseland Court and Wiedenmann Ridge.

Excerpt from restrictions previously imposed in the Buena Vista Heights neighborhood

Per Kansas statute, cities have the authority to take action against discriminatory language in property documents put in place by HOAs.

“For Roeland Park it’s not quite that simple, mostly because all of these subdivisions, even though they had a provision for creation of a Homeowners Association, they never had one. They were never set up,” Maurer said. 

To make changes, the city would have to find three people that live in a subdivision to form an official HOA and become the president, secretary and treasurer of a new organization. Once an HOA is created for the subdivision, the city would send a letter requiring the new association to rewrite its covenants and restrictions to remove the discriminatory language. 

After the rewrite is accepted by the Johnson County Recorder of Deeds, the city would likely disband the newly formed HOA. 

To complete the process and eliminate the discriminatory language for all six areas, it’s estimated to cost the city approximately $50,000.

“It’s a lot of, I don’t know, fluff. It doesn’t really accomplish anything.I take exception at somebody telling me that Roeland Park is a segregated city and that people of any race, creed or color wouldn’t automatically come here,” Councilmember Tom Madigan said. “I meet people every day that are all different races and colors. They might only live in an apartment, but they count too.”  

Maurer said the city has adopted a policy that if anyone were to attempt to discriminate by using racially restrictive property documents, the person attempting to enforce them would be fought in court using city funds. 

Councilmember Benjamin Dickens said for the amount of money needed to accomplish the task, he felt there were better ways to spend taxpayer dollars.

“Although it feels good, it doesn’t change the history. It doesn’t change what happened. I know since I have been on this council, we have made many statements together about how disgusting we thought these restrictive covenants were; these practices that happened long before any of us were here,” Dickens said.

“I like the idea of finding new policies that are actually meaningful and that truly make a substantive impact on our community. I would be much more in favor of finding new policies like that, rather than shuffling the paper.” 

Maurer said the most cost-effective option for the city to address the issue would be to get support from lawmakers in Topeka. 

“If we could get Topeka to provide legislation so that the Recorder of Deeds, upon request, can go in and just wipe-out or accept the new plat that does nothing but change the racial restrictions, that would make it so much simpler,” Maurer said.

After extended discussion by the Roeland Park City Council, the Racial Equity Committee has been instructed to review the issue and provide a recommendation for the council to discuss at a later date. 

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