Lawmakers weigh in as Wauwatosa asks state to undo racial covenants

A path foward isn’t yet clear, but state legislators are open to possibilities

By: - February 28, 2023 6:30 am
Suburban Development Survey Map

A 1926 map depicting “Milwaukee’s Phenomenal Suburban Expansion.” (American Geographical Society Library Digital Map Collection, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee | Donated by the Milwaukee Municipal Research Center)

The fate of decades-old racially restrictive housing covenants in parts of Wisconsin is now up to the state. Earlier this month, the city of Wauwatosa’s common council unanimously voted to move towards dissolving the restrictions against selling properties to nonwhites or non-Christians that still remain on some property deeds. A resolution passed by the council urges Gov. Tony Evers and the state Legislature to craft new laws formally removing the covenants and to close a dark chapter of the city’s history.

“Several other states have passed legislation to create a process of removing racial housing covenants,” Rep. Kalan Haywood (D-Milwaukee), told Wisconsin Examiner. “If similar legislation is introduced in Wisconsin, based on the issue area it would make sense for the bill to be assigned to the Assembly Committee on Housing and Real Estate, but that discretion is ultimately up to the Speaker. That bill would then need to pass through committee, be voted on the floor by both chambers, and signed into law by the governor.”

Rep. Kalan Haywood

As a member of the committee, Haywood might end up working directly on any proposed legislation to dissolve the covenants. Despite the fissures that divide the Legislature along party lines, “it is my hope that if legislation as such is proposed in this body, it will be met with sincerity by my colleagues on both sides of the aisle and passed through the legislative process in a timely manner,” said Haywood. “If we want to truly make strides in Wisconsin, we need all of our legislators to support racial equity across the board.”

Wauwatosa has long been held out as an example of what was once a widespread practice. In the Milwaukee area, segregation was maintained by limits on who could own property and housing. Redlining systematically devalued and led to disinvestment in neighborhoods where non-white, non-Christian or immigrants lived. Restrictive covenants were the other side of the coin, reserving other properties and neighborhoods for white residents.

Wauwatosa’s first racially restrictive covenant was adopted in 1919 and placed on the Washington Highlands subdivision. By the 1940s, the vast majority of Milwaukee’s surrounding suburban communities had such restrictive covenants, often established on individual homes or blocks. That patchwork of covenants complicates any effort on the local level to dissolve each and every one. That’s why the city of Wauwatosa considers state legislation a better option.

Rep. Jodi Emerson

The history extends beyond Milwaukee. “This is an issue that is close to home for me because the neighborhood I live in has some of the same language for our houses,” Rep. Jodi Emerson (D-Eau Claire), another member of the Housing and Real Estate Committee, told Wisconsin Examiner.

Besides Haywood, Emerson was the only member of the 15-member committee to respond to the Wisconsin Examiner’s requests for comment. She said she has spoken with the Legislature’s nonpartisan legal advisors “regarding what we could possibly do to remedy this hateful language and we are unable to find a clear and easy fix.”

Rep. Robyn Vining (D-Wauwatosa), although not part of the committee, also has her eye on the efforts. “My office is taking a detailed look into this issue,” she told Wisconsin Examiner in a statement. “We are working with stakeholders, nonpartisan legislative attorneys, and members of the local community to determine the best and most effective approach to address racial and religious covenants on property deeds.”

With the passage of the Fair Housing Act of 1968, housing covenants essentially became unenforceable. It was a point that some Wauwatosa alders stressed before the resolution was passed. Federal law, however, didn’t stop housing discrimination from continuing in the Milwaukee-area, or instances of racism from occurring. According to an analysis done by Berkeley’s Othering & Belonging Institute, Milwaukee was the fifth most segregated city in the nation in 2020. The Milwaukee Metropolitan region, covering Milwaukee, Waukesha, and West Allis, ranks No. 3 in the nation.

Wauwatosa Mayor Dennis McBride in his office. (Photo by Isiah Holmes)
Wauwatosa Mayor Dennis McBride. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

“This is a vestige of a very bad and dark time in this city,” said Mayor Dennis McBride before the council’s vote, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported. “I compared this to pulling down our Confederate statues, which we do not have. We’re pulling down these.” McBride has previously acknowledged the city’s troubled racial history. “The Wauwatosa I grew up in was a racist, almost totally white community,” McBride told Wisconsin Public Radio during the summer of 2020, stating that today Wauwatosa is more diverse and welcoming.

Haywood also called housing covenants “a dark reminder of our past,” in a statement to Wisconsin Examiner. “Their existence today reminds us that the fight against housing discrimination is not ancient history, but history lived in the lifetimes of our parents and grandparents.” He added  that “educating our community of the history of racial housing inequity is vital to creating a more inclusive future. We cannot eradicate the harmful policies of our past if we do not acknowledge how they impact us today.”

Photographs taken by a Wauwatosa officer at a protest in August, 2020. (Photo | Wauwatosa Police Department)
A protester in Wauwatosa during 2020. (Photo | Wauwatosa Police Department)

Haywood underscored the gravity of the task before the state. “Housing impacts nearly every facet of our society,” he said. “From supporting local economies to providing educational opportunities; access to affordable, quality and safe housing is vital to the growth of individuals, families, and communities.”

Emerson is also concerned about how the political climate in Wisconsin’s state government will affect attempts to dissolve the covenants. While the Fair Housing Act of 1968 made the covenants unenforceable, “in the past year we’ve seen activist courts overrule rights for people to choose what happens to their bodies that we have held for 50 years,” Emerson told Wisconsin Examiner, alluding to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in June that reversed the national legal right to abortion. “It’s possible, although not probable, that an activist court could roll back other protections and racist language in deeds could be legal again. Wisconsin and other states need to make sure that we have statutory language that makes it clear that all people are welcome in all parts of our state.”


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Isiah Holmes
Isiah Holmes

Isiah Holmes is a journalist and videographer, and a lifelong resident of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His writing has been featured in Urban Milwaukee, Isthmus, Milwaukee Stories, Milwaukee Neighborhood News Services, Pontiac Tribune, the Progressive Magazine, Al Jazeera, and other outlets.