'It has no place': How a Mundelein-area woman is deleting a painful relic of race and housing

For 40 years beginning in the late 1920s, it was not uncommon for restrictive covenant clauses to prohibit the sale or lease of property to certain racial or ethnic groups.

That practice became illegal and unenforceable with the passage of the federal Housing Rights Act in 1968. But the offensive language has remained.

Many property owners are unaware of such references in covenants associated with their property. And those who are have found it difficult to have them deleted.

Nicole Sullivan discovered that about eight years ago after moving to a home on Diamond Lake near Mundelein. But Tuesday morning, she became the first person in Lake County - and likely in Illinois - to file a restrictive covenant modification, allowed under state law as of Jan. 1.

"It has no place being in an active legal document anywhere," said Sullivan, a stay-at-home mom with four kids and member of the Diamond Lake Elementary District 76 school board. "It just feels so icky to recycle this garbage."

Developed in 1929, properties in the West Shore Park and West Shoreland subdivision where Sullivan lives are covered by a covenant with 13 restrictions. Some are unsurprising, such as bans on fences and disposing of trash outside.

But one prohibits owners from conveying property to "any person of the African or Negro, Japanese, Chinese, Jewish or Hebrew races or their descendants."

A deed record from 1929 for property near Mundelein includes a covenant restriction, No. 10, regarding sale or lease to certain racial and ethnic groups. Such references can be deleted under state law as of Jan. 1. Courtesy of Nicole Sullivan

The language came to Sullivan's attention as her family considered installing a dog run.

"We had already closed on our house before I knew it even existed," Sullivan said of the covenant. "Nobody likes it. It's embarrassing."

A self-described "white suburban girl who grew up in Crystal Lake," Sullivan said she long has been bothered by the language and her conscience wouldn't let it go.

After years of frustration, she contacted state Rep. Daniel Didech. He teamed with state Sen. Adriane Johnson, a fellow Buffalo Grove Democrat, to push for the successful passage of House Bill 58.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed the legislation in July, and on Jan. 1 Illinois became the fourth state to allow property owners to remove unlawful restrictive covenants. The measure was modeled after statutes in California, Minnesota and Washington state.

Sullivan on Tuesday filed the document to have the language removed with the Lake County recorder of deeds office in Waukegan. The Lake County state's attorney's office will review the filing to ensure compliance with the new state law before it is officially recorded.

"Our office looks forward to helping the recorder and resident in utilizing this fantastic tool," said Lake County State's Attorney Eric Rinehart.

Sullivan was joined by Catherine Shannon, a neighbor and ally in the quest.

Didech said the racially restrictive covenants are prevalent, with most left over from the first half of the last century when "white flight" spurred the restrictions. He congratulated Sullivan and her neighbors for their drive and persistence to build a more welcoming community.

Johnson said that while racial restrictive covenants are no longer enforceable, striking "harmful and antiquated" provisions from property records has been difficult.

"By empowering homeowners to easily remove racist language from their property deeds, our state is taking steps to combat a painful relic of the historical harms done to our communities of color and rooting out racism in all our systems," she said.

The law allows individuals or community associations to file requests to have the reference stricken. It also sets the recording fee at $10, well below the general charge of $60.

"We all are hoping we can spread the word and let people know they can do this," said Cynthia Pruim Haran, chief deputy Lake County recorder of deeds.

"I've no doubt there's more out there," she said.

A 1954 mortgage title for property in the Wedgewood subdivision in Antioch Township with a racially restrictive covenant, for example, was accepted as a donation last fall by the Bess Bower Dunn Museum of Lake County.

"I hope other communities with similar land covenants take advantage of the new law and remove their racist language," Sullivan said. "While we can't change the past, we have done our best to stop this document from continuing to cause harm."

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