One of the metro area's largest Realtors associations has backed out of a project that it helped launch to remove racial covenants written into thousands of property deeds in the early 1900s.

Officials with the St. Paul Area Association of Realtors notified Just Deeds organizers this spring that they were withdrawing from the project.

"Please remove SPAAR's name, logo and description from the Just Deeds website and other materials created by and for the partnership," Joe McKinley, a vice president for the St. Paul group, wrote Just Deeds organizers in an e-mail.

McKinley wrote that the website included statements and content that "contradict association positions with respect to homeownership and mischaracterize the real estate industry."

But it isn't clear what the St. Paul Realtors found objectionable. And McKinley wasn't saying. "I don't know that I am comfortable giving details because I am afraid I would get thrown out on my ear," he said in a recent interview.

Developers inserted racial covenants in the deeds of many homes built in the Twin Cities in the first half of the 20th century to prohibit homeowners from reselling to people of color, maintaining whites-only neighborhoods. While the covenants no longer have the force of law, Just Deeds encourages municipalities to help residents insert language rejecting the racist covenants.

On its mission page, the Just Deeds website says: "Systemic racism in housing occurs today. Black, Indigenous and other communities of color continue to face discrimination and lack of access to affordable housing and homeownership."

In another section, it says the real estate profession and its practices "have a history of racism including redlining, inequitable lending practices and discriminatory covenants."

Said McKinley: "At the time I sent the e-mail, I don't recall there was any acknowledgment [on the website] that the real estate industry had taken any attempts to do better." He added that SPAAR and the National Association of Realtors have supported the federal Fair Housing Act, which outlaws racial covenants, since it was signed into law in 1968.

In a subsequent statement to the Star Tribune, SPAAR said the Just Deeds' website did "not reflect the efforts taken by Realtors to promote homeownership and fair housing/equal opportunities and to address past injustices."

It also said SPAAR "did not have the opportunity to check the validity [of] arguments, statements or research" posted on Just Deeds' education page, which offers links to videos such as "Systemic Racism in Housing" and readings that include a 2014 article by Ta-Nehisi Coates titled "The Case for Reparations."

McKinley said that SPAAR, which had initially promoted Just Deeds, is a "longtime advocate of education of race-based covenants." He added that while the St. Paul Realtors group has severed its public relationship with Just Deeds, it will support the project "as a silent community partner."

Looking for change

SPAAR's withdrawal prompted project leaders to quickly meet over Zoom to ensure that officials with Minneapolis Area Realtors (MAR) "were still on board after being surprised and shocked that St. Paul pulled out," said Jamar Hardy of Edina Realty Title, one of the founding partners of Just Deeds.

Hardy said the Minneapolis Realtors group "shared some of the reservations that St. Paul has" but did not intend to leave Just Deeds. But Carrie Chang, the CEO of MAR, said she doesn't know what led to St. Paul's decision to pull out.

"It wasn't reservations," she said. "It was more about how our organizations, independently, supported Just Deeds, that each of us find a way of getting information out to our respective audiences."

Chang said Just Deeds was doing "a great job of framing the issue and putting it out there in a compelling way." She said MAR promotes fair housing and encourages members to attend a course on redlining and racial covenants.

Just Deeds came together as a way to raise public awareness and provide an avenue for challenging racial covenants. It has sought to unite local Realtors and municipalities in dismantling what it calls "the racist systems that exist in our communities."

The project piggybacks on the work of Mapping Prejudice, an effort of the University of Minnesota Libraries partly funded by both St. Paul and Minneapolis Realtors groups that has for the past five years sought to uncover racial covenants in Hennepin and Ramsey counties. Mapping Prejudice backed a 2019 law that enables homeowners to discharge covenants in their deeds by inserting language disavowing the racist provisions.

Just Deeds backers say the covenants systematically shut out people of color, reducing their chances of accumulating long-term wealth and contributing to today's homeownership gap. About a quarter of Black families in the metro area own their homes, compared with about three-fourths of white families — one of the largest such disparities in the United States.

The Just Deeds project has won support from a number of Minnesota cities, including Minneapolis, Golden Valley, New Hope, Crystal, Minnetonka, Hopkins and Rochester, according to the Just Deeds website.