Acknowledging Boise’s past: Student research helped create law to allow removal of race covenants

McKay Cunningham began the Redline Project after looking at an interactive map

The map showed all the cities where the federal government participated in redlining,  a practice following the Great Depression that ensured residential segregation would be kept in place in cities and counties throughout the United States. The College of Idaho professor, who also serves as the director of on-campus experiential learning, noticed that the Idaho portion of the map was blank. 

That encouraged him to start a research project with C of I students investigating discriminatory housing practices in Idaho, a project that would eventually lead to a change in Idaho law through state Sen. Melissa Wintrow’s Senate Bill 1240. The law went into effect July 1.

In their research, the students discovered and mapped over 50 subdivisions in Ada County containing thousands of properties with discriminatory race covenants attached to them

Racial housing discrimination in Idaho in the 20th century 

To stabilize the national economy after the Great Depression, policy makers focused on increasing home ownership by financially backing mortgages for families to build subdivisions. During this process, policy makers created color-coded lines separating and classifying red subdivisions as “risky” investments. The people living in subdivisions mapped with red lines were primarily people of color.  

With neither the government nor banks offering housing loans to residents living in the red subdivisions, the U.S. government contributed to decades of systemically excluding people of color from becoming homeowners. 

In addition to redlining, private landowners and developers used race covenants, which are  agreements and restrictions set between the buyer and seller of a property, to prohibit all non-whites from residing within a given subdivision.

This year’s research cohort consisted of students ranging from different disciplines, including the political economy, environmental studies, history and marketing departments. From left to right, some of the students from the research project include Dler Awsman, Emmanuela Ibiejugba, Senelile Dlamini and Joseph Howell. (Mia Maldonado/Idaho Capital Sun)

Senelile Dlamini, one of the student researchers for the project and a senior at the College of Idaho, said that the main reason that a racial wealth gap exists is because redlining and racial covenants excluded people of color from becoming homeowners since homeownership is one of the main ways that families can pass on their wealth to future generations.

According to the U.S. Federal Reserve, the net worth of a typical white family is $188,200. This is about eight times greater than that of a Black family at $24,100 and more than five times greater than that of a Latinx family at $36,100.

In their research, the students hope to show Idahoans how discriminatory housing practices in the past have taken a generational toll on racial and ethnic minorities and their families’ ability to accumulate wealth.

Idaho’s Senate Bill 1240

The Redline Project played a critical role in helping pass Senate Bill 1240. 

In March, the Idaho Legislature unanimously passed a bill allowing Idaho homeowners to bring in their home deeds to their county clerk’s office and void its race covenants. Some counties in Idaho have a virtual option on their website to void the language in their property titles. 

The Intermountain Fair Housing Council put Cunningham and his team in touch with Wintrow, who was already working to address the issue after one of her constituents noticed the racially restrictive language in the deed of their home. 

“His students have been amazing to work with,” Wintrow said. “He and his students have been mapping the state to see where these covenants are located.”

After working with legal experts, realtors and Cunningham’s research team, Wintrow sponsored  Senate Bill 1240. The bill was signed into law by Gov. Brad Little during a ceremony in March. 

With Idaho’s new fiscal year starting on July 1, the new law makes it easier for homeowners to remove racially restrictive language from the title of their property a historical relic that remained untouched since the early practices of racial housing discrimination. 

If it’s already outlawed by the Fair Housing Act, is there a problem?

In 1968, the Fair Housing Act outlawed housing discrimation based on race. However, race covenants continue to linger within the deeds of Ada County homes. 

Why did legislators create a law when race discrimination is already outlawed? One of the reasons is to educate Idahoans on the impact that systemic racism has had on generations of people of color, Cunningham said.

Unlike their white counterparts, people of color did not have the financial support from the federal government to buy a home or choose where to live. 

Dler Awsman, a senior who took part in the research project, said that race covenants left a legacy of classifying people of color into an inferior status. 

“The racial covenants state that people who are not Caucasian cannot live here, except if they are the domestic servants of white people. This shows the logic that built the history of Boise, that its people of color were only worthy when serving white people,” Awsman said. 

Joseph Howell, a junior and student research collaborator, said discriminatory housing policies contribute to modern day racial stigmas.

“If your neighborhood looks nice because you get access to mortgages and banks willing to invest in your neighborhood, but then you see rundown neighborhoods where people of color live, then the idea that gets in your head might be, ‘Oh these people must be lazy, bad business people or criminals,’” Howell said. “These housing policies drove racist thinking.”

The exclusionary nature of housing

Rachel Miller, a history professor at the College of Idaho and research adviser for the project, said that the research starts a conversation about the exclusionary nature of property values.

“Property is the safest place to put your money, and yet it is fundamentally always exclusionary,” Miller said. “Whether it has a race restriction, trailer restrictions or restrictions on accessory dwelling units, these rules are designed to protect property values. They are not rules to make living egalitarian or equitable.”

Miller said that she hopes this research will help Idahoans understand how homes and properties get their value through exclusionary policies. 

“This research makes us question the way homes get their value,” she said. “We need a communal reimagining of what kind of place we want to live in and how we want housing to work.”

While the research focused on racial covenants in Ada County subdivisions, Miller said that the race covenants are not the only historic effort policy makers took to exclude residents. She adds that the removal of Native people and the demolition of Chinatown in Ada County also show how policy makers envisioned a city without them.

“This project reminds us of a powerful vision of what Ada County was supposed to look like, a prosperous, new and modern Boise full of beautiful homes and neighborhoods full of white people,” Miller said.  

Contradicting the unanimous bill that used critical race theory

Weeks after Senate Bill 1240 unanimously passed, the Idaho Legislature moved to pass a bill denouncing the use of critical race theory in schools. 

“Part of me wonders whether this work could have been done at a public university in light of the critical race theory debate,” Cunningham said. “I think what we are doing is what a lot of legislators don’t want. That is, to study and evaluate racist policies of our past and how they impact us today.”

Wintrow said that despite the debate in the Idaho Legislature concerning the use of critical race theory in schools, this unanimous bill exemplifies how critical race theory played an important role in identifying racist housing policies in Idaho. 

“This is an essential piece of legislation to acknowledge that our federal and state government and private businesses legally incorporated racist practices that denied people of color access to the American dream,” Wintrow said. “It doesn’t erase or fix the loss of wealth for those people, but going forward it says it existed, it was real, and the government was a part of it. Moving forward, we denounce it.”

Wintrow said that extremists in the state and country misuse the word critical race theory to strike a nerve in middle class America.

“The extremists are misusing the term critical race theory for their own purpose to instill fear without making the world a better place, but we are smarter than that and we are better neighbors than that,” Wintrow said. “I ask Idahoans to understand the fabrications of misinformers who are trying to waive hate in our state and education.”

Idaho Capital Sun is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Idaho Capital Sun maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Christina Lords for questions: [email protected]. Follow Idaho Capital Sun on Facebook and Twitter.


Mia Maldonado, Idaho Capital Sun

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