'Whites Only' Deed Sparks Lawsuit

James and Nealie Pitts stand outside their home in Richmond, Va., March 31, 2005. Nealie Pitts was looking for a house in 2002 and approached Richmond resident Rufus T. Matthews. According to court documents, Matthews told her the house was $83,000 - with a deed saying it was for sale to whites only. Virginia's attorney general will take Matthews to court for the alleged fair housing law violation.
The modest brick house, with its yard full of wilting tulips and rusted old cars, isn't a candidate for the pages of Better Homes and Gardens.

But on a spring day in 2002, it was just what Nealie Pitts had in mind. She approached the owner, Rufus T. Matthews, and asked the price.

According to court documents, Matthews said the house was selling for $83,000 - but that a deed restriction meant only whites were eligible to buy it.

"I was hurt and angry, like he had slapped me in the face," Pitts, who is black, said in an e-mail.

Nearly three years later, the Virginia Office of the Attorney General said it will soon take Matthews to court for the alleged fair housing law violation.

It's a bittersweet victory for fair housing proponents, who wonder how many other people are turned away by racially restrictive deed covenants.

"We very rarely encounter anybody who believes they can be enforced," said Connie Chamberlin, president of Housing Opportunities Made Equal (HOME). "We are aware they're certainly out there."

In milder forms, covenants can be used to control things like the color homeowners can paint their houses.

But in the Jim Crow South, they were often used to keep neighborhoods white. Racially restrictive covenants were ruled illegal by the Supreme Court in 1948.

"Many people don't even know they're in their deeds," Chamberlin said, adding would-be homebuyers can ask to have the racist language removed. "That can't be used as a reason to stop a sale."

According to court documents, Matthews told Pitts his house in suburban Richmond was "not for colored. We decided we are going to keep this area right here all white."

The next day she contacted HOME, which sent out a black test buyer.

"Precisely the same thing happened," Chamberlin said. "We have it on tape."

On Thursday, Matthews told The Associated Press that he would sell his home only to a white buyer. But he denied the house was for sale, saying a sale sign he had was for items in his yard. "The house has never been for sale," he said.

Matthews is accused of violating the Virginia Fair Housing Law. The same code says officials can attempt an out-of-court settlement in cases where the law has been violated.

At an April 13 meeting, the Virginia Fair Housing Board rejected a settlement offer. Board Chairman David Rubinstein declined to detail why it refused the proposal from the attorney general's office.

But Thomas Wolf, an attorney representing Pitts, said the offer would have required Matthews take two hours of class on fair housing law, at taxpayer expense.

"That is not a serious settlement proposal given the facts of the case," Wolf said. "Were they planning to pass out Happy Meals with little Confederate flags?"

Emily Lucier, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Judith Williams Jagdmann, could not explain how the proposal was formulated, but said settlement is not unheard of in discrimination cases.

Pitts is seeking $100,000 in damages in a separate case against Matthews. Lucier said because Pitts has gotten her own lawyer, the office cannot legally seek monetary damages in the civil matter.

Instead, she said, the office will continue pressing for injunctive relief and education. A court date has not been set.

By Dionne Walker