Alisha Jarwala, a 2020 graduate of the Harvard Law School, has posted The More Things Change: Hundley v. Gorewitz and 'Change of Neighborhood' in the NAACP’s Restrictive Covenant Cases, which is forthcoming in the Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review 55 (2020):
Racially restrictive covenants flourished throughout the United States in the early twentieth century. These private agreements prohibited the sale or rental of specific parcels of land to non-white individuals, with the goal of maintaining residential segregation. Today, the primary case associated with restrictive covenants is Shelley v. Kraemer, in which the Supreme Court used the state action doctrine to strike down restrictive covenants in 1948.
However, there was a road not taken. The NAACP challenged hundreds of restrictive covenants and lost the majority of these cases, with a notable exception in 1941: Hundley v. Gorewitz. In Hundley, a federal court struck down a racially restrictive covenant in Washington, D.C., under a different theory: the “change of neighborhood” doctrine. This doctrine allows a court in equity to declare a restrictive covenant unenforceable if there has been such a radical change in the neighborhood that the covenant’s original purpose has been defeated. NAACP lawyer Charles Hamilton Houston was able to persuade the D.C. Circuit that a racially restrictive covenant was unenforceable if a neighborhood was already becoming predominantly Black, and the Hundleys kept their home.
This Note seeks to provide a legal historical account of Hundley v. Gorewitz and the change of neighborhood doctrine in the fight against restrictive covenants. A close examination of this case and doctrine provides insights into the NAACP’s civil rights litigation strategy. First, Hundley demonstrates the NAACP’s desire to use litigation as a tool to educate the courts and the public about the social and economic impacts of restrictive covenants. In addition, the use of this doctrine highlights Houston’s legal pragmatism: Ideologically, the change of neighborhood doctrine was a compromise because it accepted the premise of segregated neighborhoods. In making this argument, Houston utilized the converging interests of white homeowners, who wanted to be able to sell their properties to Black buyers. Ultimately, Hundley and the change of neighborhood doctrine showcase Houston’s ingenuity, pragmatism, and forward thinking at a time when the NAACP faced long odds in the fight against housing segregation.