Believe it or not, Republicans, Democrats banned racist Kansas housing rules together | Opinion

It doesn’t always seem like it, but good things can come from the Kansas Legislature.

Sometimes they even happen on a bipartisan basis.

That’s certainly the case with a new bill that takes a stand against old-time racism in Kansas.

How? It gives the state’s homeowners new powers to strip out racially restrictive covenants from their property deeds. Those covenants often included conditions that prohibited owners from selling their houses to Black or Jewish buyers, a way of keeping neighborhoods segregated, making it difficult for minority homeowners to build their wealth.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1948 that racist covenants are unenforceable. But the dead letter provisions have often stayed attached to deeds, as homes and other property have passed from one buyer to the next over the decade.

“A lot of houses in my neck of the woods have these covenants,” said state Rep. Rui Xu, a Westwood Democrat who has been working on the legislation for most of the last two years. “Even though it’s unenforceable, that’s not a good feeling.”

Indeed, a 2005 investigation by The Kansas City Star found that thousands of homes in the region still had attached language banning ownership by various minority groups. Missouri and Kansas later passed laws requiring HOAs to delete the provisions, which was good.

But a lot of old HOAs have passed into oblivion. That left owners with few tools to officially strip the racism out of their legal documents.

The new bill — which passed the Legislature almost unanimously — fixes that. It also contains provisions to protect vulnerable adults from financial exploitation and new protections against deceptive practices in property sales.

“I think it’s a moral stand, to me, rectifying a shameful past of the history of our state and our country,” said state Rep. Nick Hoheisel, a Wichita Republican who highlighted the new bill this week on social media. He gave credit to Xu — as well as state Reps. Patrick Penn and Emil Bergquist, Republicans from Wichita and Park City — for getting the legislation passed.

Confession: I already had my eye on Hoheisel and Xu. The two work together on the House Committee on Financial Institutions and Pensions — Hoheisel as the GOP chair, Xu as the ranking Democrat — and, somewhat amazingly in this era of fiercely polarized politics, they seem to genuinely like each other.

Earlier this month, Xu posted a picture of a bottle of bourbon whiskey and a decanter emblazoned with his name. They were gifts from Hoheisel.

“Even when we disagree, we’ve always worked well together to find a better solution,” Xu wrote. “Appreciate you as a chair, a colleague, and a friend.”

I had to ask the men: How the heck does that happen?

“We are friends first and foremost, always have been,” Xu told me. The pair entered the House at the same time in 2019, and both are members of the Kansas Future Caucus, a bipartisan group made up mostly of millennial legislators.

Even when they disagree, which is often, Xu said, “we’re talking about the Chiefs and sports betting.”

“We were all just young electeds who didn’t expect to be elected,” added Hoheisel. With Xu, he said, “I appreciated our disagreements were always civil.”

Bipartisanship can be a chump’s game, a way of trying to paper over very real differences with happy talk. But mindless partisanship is almost always deeply corrosive: It’s not been so long since a few legislative Republicans blocked a lifesaving bill simply because it was backed by Gov. Laura Kelly, a Democrat. (Kelly announced Friday she had signed the new bill.)

So it is worth celebrating not just when bipartisanship happens, but when it actually produces a positive outcome for Kansans. That seems to be the case with the new bill and its attack on racist covenants.

The legislation, Xu said, “is unambiguously a good thing.”

Joel Mathis is a regular Kansas City Star and Wichita Eagle Opinion correspondent. He lives in Lawrence with his wife and son. Formerly a writer and editor at Kansas newspapers, he served nine years as a syndicated columnist.