"perpetual and binding forever"
Race and the Creation of a
Los Angeles Subdivision

Covenants and Restrictions:
The FHA Inspection

It is impossible to overstate the importance of FHA approval to the developer of a new subdivision in 1939 Los Angeles. With the Great Depression still wreaking havoc with the economy, many banks simply were not in position to issue a loan that was not insured by the FHA, and certainly not at the favorable terms the FHA made available. Even Walter H. Leimert, whose Leimert Park was well-known and popular place to live, emphasizes the FHA at the top of his real estate ads. 

The process of requesting and receiving an inspection from the FHA was established in the Underwriting Manual, paragraph 281, titled Request for Suggestions. Briefly summarized, paragraph 281 requires the developers to fill out the Subdivision Information Form and send it, with exhibits to the FHA. A Valuator inspects the subdivision and submits a letter of suggestions (if he believes the subdivision is viable) or a suggestion it be rejected. A Chief Underwriter analyzes the suggestions and prepares a letter to the developers, either discouraging development or encouraging continued development. The approving letter with recommendations would be sent to the developer, with the following included:
  1. Two publications -- Circular #5, Subdivision Standards, and Technical Bulletin #5, Planning Neighborhoods for Small Houses."
  2. Recommendations included are suggestions only, and not a guarantee of eligibility if followed.
  3. A statement that the suggestions will, "in the opinion of the Administrator, serve to create a more sound and stable neighborhood."
The Francis Land Company filled out the Subdivision Information Form as part of its request for an inspection in October, 1938. The FHA inspected Tract 11556 in January, 1939. On January 31, the Chief Underwriter for the LA Office of the FHA sent a letter to the Francis Land Company. The letter was positive, and encouraged the developers to continue building the Cheviot Knolls subdivision. Of course, as Paragraph 281 promised, the letter included a number of suggestions, and also included the two FHA publications.

The recommended suggestions take two forms. Those included in the body of the letter are titled Mortgage Insurance Requirements, and generally deal with the physical improvement of the tract (removal of rubbish, addition of sidewalks, trees planted. etc.). Within those, one of the most immediately significant changes is a requirement that restrictions be amended as noted (see below), and be "hereto attached and be placed of record against the entire tract instead of being imposed in individual deeds." This is a rejection of Leimert's effort to list covenants and restrictions on the individual deeds themselves.


These also are largely cosmetic, dealing most often with space requirements in the construction of buildings on individual lots, as had been proposed by the developers (e.g., how much space between the house and the front property line). These three pages mention nothing about the race restriction stated in the sample document that was sent to accompany the Subdivision Information Form.

Circular No. 5, Subdivision Standards

Given its place of prominence in the in the FHA letter, one might think that the 18 pages of Subdivision Standards would contain a perfect distillation of the aims and attitudes that the FHA so rigidly enforced in shaping the American housing industry. But that is not true. The image of the ideal subdivision as presented is uncontroversial, to say the least. The stated goal for the standards presented are "to give each householder the sense of belonging to a larger unit, to give him the feeling of neighborhood identity, and to cause him to take pride in the maintenance of the neighborhood as well as in his separate identity." (p.2)

Throughout the pamphlet, words such as "healthy," reasonable," "appropriate," and "suitable" show up to introduce or explain the requirements of an ideal subdivision, including its location, architecture, and accessibility to amenities.  This tone holds true even in discussion of deed restrictions. After reading the Underwriting Manual, which wants mainly to protect the subdivision form being "invaded" or "infiltrated" by "inharmonious racial groups," it is jarring to read in Subdivision Standards that the restrictions largely protect the purchaser from "thoughtlessness or selfishness on the part of his neighbor." (p.7) Terms that pop up, such as "stability" and "lasting value" may strike a harsh note to one familiar with their use in the Underwriting Manual, but to one coming to Subdivision Standards unaware, the tone is nothing but positive.

The circular lists seven factors that deed restrictions should control, including 
  1. Allocation of definite areas for specific uses.
  2. Regulation of the placement of buildings.
  3. Control of minimum lot sizes and prohibition of resubdivision of lots.
  4. Prohibition of the erection of more than one dwelling per lot.
  5. Control of the design of all buildings.
  6. Prohibition of nuisances.
  7. Appropriate provision for enforcement of deed restrictions. (p.8)
On one hand, it is understandable to present an idealized view of a subdivision, with the FHA taking no more than a paternal stance in nudging the developers into doing what is best for everyone. The harsh tone of the Underwriting Manual would certainly be at odds with it. Kimble finds this true in other FHA publications as well, noting that "(P)ublications distributed publicly typically assumed a deferential role towards industry practitioners and rarely mentioned the racial component of these restrictions" (Kimble, 411). It is also true that Subdivision Standards was written for potential developers. The last section of the pamphlet urges developers to submit FHA Form 2084  (Subdivision Information Form) to begin the process leading up to an FHA inspection, rather than having it follow an inspection, as in the case of Tract 11556.

However, though the Preface of the Underwriting Manual notes that it "is made available to individuals and institutions," Kimble finds that they were "distributed primarily to the housing and lending industries" (Kimble, 411). As such, developers who have already begun a conversation with the FHA would presumably be well aware of the weight given to the presence or threat of "inharmonious racial groups." This makes the absence of any mention of it in the circular baffling.

A Subdivision Standards "Cheat Sheet"

The shift in tone between the Underwriting Manual and the Subdivision Standards circular is made even more problematic by the presence of an unusual document in the collection. This 2-page document closely resembles the 3-page document attached to the FHA inspection report, with a similar title, in all-caps: RESTRICTIVE COVENANTS WHICH MEET THE OBJECTIVES AS SET FORTH ON PAGE 8 OF CIRCULAR #5, "SUBDIVISION STANDARDS," REVISED JUNE 1, 1937.  The note is attached to an office memo dated October 28, 1938, and there is a handwritten note on the top page itself, referring to "Baldus," meaning Otto Baldus, the City Engineer hired to map Tract 11556. Baldus was hired in July, 1938 and completed his work in December of that year, so the document was in hand long before the FHA inspection. As Leimert had been dealing with the FHA since its inception, the best guess is that he had been sent this sheet on a previous inspection, or it was created by a bank or realtor with whom he had dealt. It is perhaps one reason the restrictions he wrote required so relatively little revision.

Unlike the list of "suggestions" sent to the Francis Land Company to improve their restrictions, this is a general template for creating restrictive covenants from scratch. Many of these restrictions deal with the physical appearance of the tract or its buildings, and indeed match up with the goals of restrictions as stated on page eight of Subdivision Standards. However, at the bottom of page one, race is re-introduced to the process. (f) No race or nationality other than those for whom the premises are intended, shall use or occupy any building on any lot, except that this covenant shall not prevent occupancy by domestic servants of a different race or nationality employed by an owner or tenant." 

This re-introduction of a racial covenant as meeting an objective of the bland list on page eight of Subdivision Standards is as jarring as the absence of race as a factor in the circular itself.  


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