The consumer rights-focused tech company DoNotPay has developed an automated way for people to quickly and seamlessly remove racist language from California real estate documents like deeds and homeowners’ association rules, the company tells Motherboard.
Through the Supreme Court made discriminatory housing restriction illegal in 1968 (and unenforceable in 1948), real estate documents in county records all across the United States continue to contain language restricting who can buy, sell, and use a particular piece of property based on their race, religion, or other characteristics.
DoNotPay, which bills itself as a “robot lawyer” that fights for consumer rights, began looking into housing laws after successful disputes against homeowners’ associations and others over various fees, according to Joshua Browder, the company's founder and CEO.
“What we discovered is remarkable, which is that all of this racist language still exists in all of these documents,” Browder said. “So we figured out a way to automate its removal.”
Last year, California signed new rules into law that allowed anyone to file for the removal of “unlawfully restrictive covenants” in a particular real estate document, whether or not they have anything to do with the property.
The new rules went into place on July 1, and now DoNotPay will allow its customers to upload a copy of any real estate document to be scanned for evidence of racist language. If such language is found, DoNotPay files a request in the relevant county to have it removed.
The prevalence of the racist deeds has shocked DoNotPay’s own employees. When Andrew Kim, DoNotPay’s vice president of product, started working on the project, he searched the neighborhood where he grew up in Orange County, California.
“I found dozens immediately,” he said.
One deed in particular stood out. It said that “no part of any said lots shall ever be sold, conveyed, leased or rented to any person other than one of the white or Caucasian race,” adding that they should never be “used or occupied, or be permitted to be used or occupied, by Hindus, Asiatics or any person other than one of the white or Caucasian race, except such as are in the employ of the lot owners or their tenants.”
As a test, he used DoNotPay’s system. When DoNotPay found the grand deed for the most recent transaction related to the property, no mention of the racist covenant was made, though it still existed. The company then sent an automated request to the Orange County Clerk’s Recorders Office to have it removed.
By law, the language must be removed within 30 days, though the company said it’s been happening in a week or two so far.
“This is the first time I can leverage technology at scale to combat problems that specifically used to affect people who came before me,” Kim said.
As part of the project, DoNotPay has developed an automated process to sift through “tens of thousands” of California deeds itself for additional evidence of racist language. “Because we feel very strongly about this as a team, we're going in and actually looking at a lot of deeds, and just removing them for fun, because we have the technology to do it,” Browder said.
Browder first started the company in 2015 while he was an undergraduate at Stanford University. He had received a number of parking tickets and wanted to figure out an automated way to fight them, so he started DoNotPay, short for “do not pay parking tickets.”
In the year since, the company has expanded beyond parking tickets to offer a number of other automated services that previously required a lawyer, like filing for bankruptcy and combating workplace discrimination.
DoNotPay has received the backing of venture firms like Andreessen Horowitz and individual investors like crypto billionaire Sam Bankman-Fried and The Chainsmokers.
Browder said that while other companies' products were more difficult to develop, the “stone age”-like recording process of some of the counties proved a challenge. “Automating that was probably the most difficult part,” he said.
To help, DoNotPay developed relationships with a number of title companies, which allowed it to pull the original documents from a given address.Browder said the new service solves the exact sort of problem DoNotPay is trying to make easier to fix.
“There are all these rights and laws that are available to people that they don't know about or they don't have the time to pursue, and this is the perfect example. No one has time to go down to the county office, pull the deed, fill out this form,” Browder said.