August 2021 – For most of his adult life, Andy Lewis has been intrigued by a broad and surprisingly complex subject: land usage. How does a community make use of this finite resource? Who gets to decide, and how? Many of us pay scarce attention to such questions, despite their importance to our everyday lives.
Lewis is most knowledgeable where Edina’s transit networks are concerned. He sits on the City’s standing Planning Commission, and is an alternate on the Metropolitan Council’s Transportation Advisory Board. Advisory bodies like these ensure that infrastructure improvements are safe for all modes of transit and fair to all residents.
Lewis does not take this even-handed approach for granted. He knows that the Edina we see today has been shaped by generations of discriminatory policies and practices. “This is where land use meets systemic racism,” he explained.
Historically, one of the most pernicious practices was the widescale adoption of so-called “restrictive covenants” by housing developers. Compacts like these barred BIPOC and non-Christian families from living in many Edina homes – originally or at any point in the future.
Covenant clauses leave little room for ambiguity. A representative buyer’s agreement from the Country Club District in the 1920s read “No lot shall ever be sold, conveyed, leased or rented to any person other than of the white or Caucasian race.”
“There are many thousands of these properties across Hennepin County, but the shaping of communities through covenants is particularly pronounced in Edina,” Lewis noted.
Racist provisions like these have been explicitly illegal for decades – and unenforceable for even longer. However, as Lewis explains it, “this old practice continues to have an impact on land values and on neighborhood [diversity], or lack thereof.”
In all, the city is home to about 2,800 recorded examples, including several dozen in Lewis’ own Concord Neighborhood. Lewis knows these sobering statistics thanks to Mapping Prejudice, a long-running project of the University of Minnesota. Its mission is to “uncover and visualize the hidden histories of race and privilege.”
“After the murder of George Floyd last May, I wanted to do something to help address systemic racism,” Lewis explained. “Because of my interest in land use, I decided to send a web form to Mapping Prejudice. They soon got me in touch with Just Deeds, just as that program was getting off the ground in mid-2020.”
Just Deeds is a grassroots coalition of cities, attorneys and homeowners. “Its work is underpinned by Mapping Prejudice data, and its mission is basically two-fold,” Lewis shared. “First, we want to give Twin Cities homeowners an easy way to determine whether their property has a racial covenant in its past, [as well as] a no-cost opportunity to formally renounce those old provisions.”
“I use the word renounce very intentionally,” he continued. “We don’t want to strike covenant language from the written record as if they never existed in the first place. … It’s obviously an ugly part of our history, but one we shouldn’t just ignore. [Old] practices like this still have a living legacy.” Instead of expunging, Just Deeds encourages the current owners of impacted properties to reopen their deeds and formally disavow exclusionary stipulations.
This modus operandi dovetails with Just Deeds’ second objective: in Lewis’ words, “to educate people more broadly about how this specific practice contributed to the systemic racism we’re facing today.”
As one means to that end, Lewis presents on the topic to allied groups like Edina Neighbors for Affordable Housing and the local Human Rights & Relations Commission.
“Both were receptive to the message,” he reports. (Indeed, the City formally joined the Just Deeds Coalition in early June 2021. Edina is one of 10 Minneapolis suburbs to have taken this step.)
Lewis is quick to redirect credit for Just Deeds’ rapid growth and successes to date. “I’m not a lawyer, and not a real estate professional. I cannot be the one to actually work with homeowners on renouncing their covenant.”
Instead, he takes on an array of administrative tasks for the cause, which in turn frees up Just Deeds’ volunteer attorneys to concentrate on the actual meat of the work. This includes stepping in as first point of contact for incoming inquiries – no small thing, given the initiative’s impressive traction over the past year.
Lewis is encouraged by the number of Edina residents to investigate Just Deeds so far; though naturally, any excitement is tempered by regret for the program’s need to exist in the first place.
“Even though these covenants are legally unenforceable, it seems an important step. … If we’re really going to dismantle racism on an institutional [level], we should understand how we got here.”
For more information on the Just Deeds project, visit EdinaMN.gov/RenouncingCovenants. If you are interested in free assistance to find and renounce a restrictive covenant from your property, fill out the “Renouncing Discriminatory Covenants Assistance” form on the page. A volunteer expert will contact you directly about your property.