Pablo Quintanilla: The Ghosts of Home Ownership

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Pablo Quintanilla says racial deed restrictions are the ghosts that haunt Bay Area home ownership to this day.

I live in Sunnybrae, a neighborhood that is a few blocks long and a few blocks wide in San Mateo, California. There are single-family homes for the most part. La Morenita, a Mexican grocery store anchors it on the south, and a plant nursery does the same on the north.

Owning a home here feels like winning the lottery. There’s a perception that limited space on the Peninsula, combined with a hot job market, explain why housing is inaccessible. “Good job for getting in at all” is a common refrain.

Unbeknownst to many, this is hardly the full story. Homeownership in Sunnybrae has never been about luck. A restrictive covenant dated August 22, 1940 was written into our home’s title. It states: “No property described in these restrictions can be leased, rented or conveyed, used, or occupied by a person, or persons, other than those of the Caucasian or White Race.” Were it still enforceable, the covenant would’ve precluded us from the possibility of living here.

I worry that we forget the ghosts of our own past too easily. Intentionally excluding Mexican, African American, Asian-American, Native, and poorer Whites from owning a home isn’t about the die falling disfavorably. Covenants are ghosts living in our closets – intentional design and public policy decisions meant to exclude. They robbed families of building generational wealth, fueling the well-known racial wealth gap. They segregated our country, neighborhood by neighborhood, along lines of race and income that persist today.

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What to do?

Explore, expose, acknowledge restrictive covenants in a home you may own. Welcome newcomers and immigrants to the community. Support mixed-income and fair housing. Engage as a volunteer in your City’s Planning Commission.

Bottom line: We all have a stake in getting this right, and we each have a role and responsibility to act in the interest of our families, our neighbors and of those who should’ve been our neighbors, too.

With a Perspective, I’m Pablo Quintanilla.

Pablo Quintanilla is the responsible innovation manager for a major tech company.