Federal Legal Precedent

Housing Affordability Institute’s Legal Precedents outlines influential, precedent-setting court decisions at the state and federal levels and illustrates their impact on housing and development.

Shelley v. Kraemer

Shelley v. Kraemer, 334 US 1 (1948), was a 1948 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court establishing that racially restrictive housing covenants cannot be legally enforced.

In 1945, the Shelleys, a Black family, purchased a home in St. Louis, Missouri. Unbeknownst to them, the home had a racially restrictive covenant preventing members of certain races from occupying the home. Louis Kraemer, a resident of the neighborhood living 10 blocks away, sued to prevent the Shelley family from occupying the home. The case found its way to the U.S. Supreme Court along with a companion case from Michigan, McGhee v. Sipes. Although considered together, the case is known today as Shelley v. Kraemer.

In 1948, the Court ruled that racially restrictive housing covenants are unenforceable, overturning the decision in Corrigan v. Buckley, 271 U.S. 323 (1926), which stated stating racial covenants are private contracts and therefore legal.

Precedent

In a 6-0 decision, the Court ruled that states cannot enforce racially restrictive housing covenants:

The historical context in which the Fourteenth Amendment became a part of the Constitution should not be forgotten. Whatever else the framers sought to achieve, it is clear that the matter of primary concern was the establishment of equality in the enjoyment of basic civil and political rights and the preservation of those rights from discriminatory action on the part of the States based on considerations of race or color. Seventy-five years ago, this Court announced that the provisions of the Amendment are to be construed with this fundamental purpose in mind. Upon full consideration, we have concluded that, in these cases, the States have acted to deny petitioners the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.”

Justice Vinson, Shelley v. Kraemer, 334 US 1 (1948)
Impact on Housing

By declaring racially restrictive housing covenants unenforceable from a legal perspective, the Supreme Court put an end to government enforcement of this exclusionary policy. Although it overturned Corrigan v. Buckley, the Court did not take action on private parties choosing to abide by any preexisting covenant recorded on a title. 

The Fair Housing Act would eventually put an end to racially restrictive housing covenants altogether in 1968, yet their existence on property titles would remain. Today, state legislatures have taken up this issue, enacting laws that make it easier for property records to have racially restrictive housing covenant language removed from their titles. California, Illinois, Minnesota, and Virginia are several of the states that have enacted laws to streamline this process in recent years.  

Further Reading