The sentiment emerged swiftly, and so did support from throughout the neighborhood.
Ashley Cavazos created a public Facebook group called “Oak Forest Deed For Change” in early June, when Houston and the rest of the country were in the midst of a social awakening. People were protesting the May 25 death of George Floyd, a Black man from Houston who died in police custody in Minnesota, and calling for the end of racial injustice.
Within a few days of creating the social media group, which aims to remove racist language from Oak Forest’s longstanding deed restrictions, Cavazos saw its membership grow to more than 350 members. And there was a sense of urgency among homeowners to put together a plan and execute it.
Two months later, membership in the Facebook group continues to grow but is doing so gradually, with 532 as of Wednesday. And the effort to amend the deed restrictions in Sections 1-7 – which include the long-unenforceable provision that only members of the “Caucasian race” are allowed to own property in Oak Forest or even live there – is still taking shape.
“It feels painfully slow, it looks painfully slow, it is painfully slow,” Cavazos said. “There’s so many nuances I did not expect. There’s so many obstacles to getting this done.”
Amending deed restrictions under the Texas Property Code is an exhaustive, costly process that requires legal work as well as legwork by volunteer homeowners. Cavazos and her fellow residents have come to realize that, but they’re making progress nonetheless.
Cavazos said multiple attorneys with ties to the neighborhood are drafting necessary documents, and a team of other volunteers has been formed to gather support and signatures in each section. The effort now has a website, fixoakforestdeeds.org, which invites more volunteers to join the cause, provides information about signature-gathering events and outlines a two-pronged plan.
Homeowners in each section of the neighborhood can be released from a restriction with the signed support of property owners representing at least 50 percent of the lot front footage in each section. To amend and restate the section-by-section deed restrictions under the Texas Property Code, Cavazos said at least 75 percent of the homeowners in a given section must sign off on the change.
Even if those targets are met, a Houston real estate attorney previously said the neighborhood’s original deed restrictions would remain part of Harris County property records. And homeowners agreeing to release themselves from the racist restriction would be redundant, since the state and federal government has considered the restriction unenforceable for decades.
The Oak Forest Homeowners Association, which said it does not have the legal authority to amend the deed restrictions after consulting with an attorney, made a similarly symbolic gesture late last month. Its board of directors unanimously adopted a resolution calling the racist restriction “vile, repugnant and not in keeping with the values and mores of the Oak Forest Subdivision and surrounding community.”
“We felt we needed to do something,” OFHA president Elizabeth Villarreal said during the OFHA’s July 24 virtual meeting. “This is a statement that will be filed with the county and will always be available and be seen. We thought it was the right thing to do.”
The same racial restriction is in the deed restrictions for Garden Oaks, which were recorded in 1937, and many neighborhood residents have expressed a desire to make the same sort of change Oak Forest homeowners are seeking. The Garden Oaks Maintenance Organization (GOMO) attempted to overhaul the community’s deed restrictions last year as part of a Chapter 11 restructuring plan – removing the racist language was part of the proposal – but it did not garner enough support from the neighborhood and GOMO’s bankruptcy case was subsequently converted to Chapter 7.
However, Chapter 7 trustee Randy Williams said it’s possible the ongoing bankruptcy case could be converted back to Chapter 11 by Judge David Jones, which would give the neighborhood another shot at amending its deed restrictions and doing away with their offensive language.
In Oak Forest, Cavazos said the goal is to remove the racial restriction without addressing the rest of the deed restrictions, which would make the effort even more exhaustive. She said she and the other volunteers are starting the signature drive in Sections 4-7, which are smaller and can possibly provide a roadmap for amending the restrictions in Sections 1-3.
Cavazos also is hoping the process can be simplified by Texas lawmakers, who will meet for their biennial legislative session in 2021. State Rep. Anna Eastman, even though she will leave office before next year, has offered to help area residents who want a law that makes it easier to modify deed restrictions, particularly when they are obsolete. Cavazos said State Rep. Jarvis Johnson and State Sen. John Whitmire also have pledged their support.
“I’m extremely happy with the progress and the volunteers and everyone that’s willing to put in the time and the energy to move forward with it,” Cavazos said. “It definitely has its challenges.”