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A covenant, in its most general sense, is a solemn promise to engage in or refrain from a specified action.

A covenant is a type of contract in which the covenantor makes a promise to a covenantee to do or not do some action. In real property law, the term real covenants is used for conditions tied to the use of land. A "covenant running with the land", also called a covenant appurtenant, imposes duties or restrictions upon the use of that land regardless of the owner. In contrast, the covenant in gross imposes duties or restrictions on a particular owner.

Covenants for title are covenants which come with a deed or title to the property, in which the grantor of the title makes certain guarantees to the grantee.

In a religious context

In certain religions, a covenant is a formal alliance or agreement made by God with that religious community or with humanity in general. This sort of covenant is an important concept in Judaism and Christianity, derived in the first instance from the biblical covenant tradition. An example of a covenant relationship in Judaism and Christianity is that between Abraham and God, in which God made a covenant with Abram that He would bless Abram's descendants making them more numerous than the stars. Also Job made a covenant with his eyes (Job 31:1). Christianity asserts that God made an additional covenant through Jesus Christ, called the "new covenant", in which Jesus' sacrifice on the cross would atone for the sins of all who put their faith in him (Matthew 26:28). In Islam God reminds all humanity of their covenants with him.

A covenant may also refer to an agreement between members of a congregation to work together according to the precepts of their religion. In Islam, God enters into a covenant with Muhammad, impressing into his shoulder the seal of prophecy. In Indo-Iranian religious tradition, Mithra-Mitra is the hypostasis of covenant, and hence keeper and protector of moral, social and interpersonal relationships, including love and friendship. In living Zoroastrianism, which is one of the two primary developments of Indo-Iranian religious tradition, Mithra is by extension a judge, protecting agreements by ensuring that individuals who break one do not enter Heaven.

In a legal context

Under the common law a covenant was distinguished from an ordinary contract by the presence of a seal. Because the presence of a seal indicated an unusual solemnity in the promises made in a covenant, the common law would enforce a covenant even in the absence of consideration. A Covenant is also used to describe a contract or a legally binding promise.

Covenants in planned communities

In contemporary practice in the United States, a covenant typically refers to restrictions set on contracts like deeds of sale. "Covenants, Conditions, and Restrictions," commonly abbreviated "CC&Rs" or "CCRs", are a complicated system of covenants, known generically as "deed restrictions," built into the deeds of all the lots in a common interest development, particularly in the tens of millions of American homes governed by a homeowner association (HOA) or condominium association. There are some office or industrial parks subject to CCRs as well.

These CCRs might, for example, dictate building materials (including roofing materials), prohibit certain varieties of trees, or place restrictions on the number of dwellings that may be built on the property. The purpose of this is to maintain a neighborhood character or prevent improper use of the land. Many covenants of this nature were imposed in the 1920s through the 1940s, before zoning became widespread. However, many modern developments are also restricted by covenants on property titles; this is often justified as a means of preserving the values of the houses in the area. Covenant restrictions can be removed through court action, although this process is lengthy and often very expensive. In some cases it even involves a plebiscite of nearby property owners. Although control of such planning issues is often governed by local planning schemes or other regulatory frameworks rather than through the use of covenants, there are still many covenants imposed, particularly in states that limit the level of control over real property use that may be exercised by local governments.

Exclusionary covenants

In the 1920s and 1930s, covenants that restricted the sale or occupation of real property on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion or social class were common in the United States, where the primary intent was to keep "white" neighbourhoods "white". Such covenants (also known as racial covenants or racial restrictive covenants) were employed by many real estate developers to “protect” entire subdivisions. The purpose of an exclusionary covenant was to prohibit a buyer of property from reselling, leasing or transferring the property to members of a given race, ethnic origin and/ or religion as specified in the title deed. Some covenants, such as those tied to properties in Forest Hills Gardensmarker, New Yorkmarker, also sought to exclude working class people however this type of social segregation was more commonly achieved through the use of high property prices, minimum cost requirements and application reference checks. In practice, exclusionary covenants were most typically concerned with keeping out African-Americans, however restrictions against Asian-Americans, Jews and Catholics were not uncommon. For example, the Lake Shore Club District in Pennsylvaniamarker, sought to exclude anyone of Negro, Mongolian, Hungarian, Mexicanmarker, Greek, Armenian, Austrian, Italian, Russian, Polish, Slavish or Roumanian birth. Cities known for their widespread use of racial covenants include Chicagomarker, Baltimoremarker, Detroitmarker and Los Angelesmarker.


Racial covenants emerged during the mid-nineteenth century and started to gain prominence from the 1890s onwards. However it was not until the 1920s that they adopted widespread national significance, a situation that continued until the 1940s. Some commentators have attributed the popularity of exclusionary covenants at this time as a response to the urbanisation of black Americans following World War 1, the consequent race riots of 1917-1921 and the 1917 US Supreme Courtmarker ruling of Buchanan v. Warley that invalidated the imposition of racially restrictive zoning ordinances (residential segregation based on race) on constitutional grounds. An alternative interpretation is that the rapid expansion in use of these covenants was triggered by the fear of "black invasion" into white neighbourhoods which would result in depressed property prices, increased nuisance and social instability.


During the 1920s, the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) sponsored several unsuccessful legal challenges against racial covenants. In a blow to campaigners against racial segregation, the legality of racial restrictive covenants was affirmed by the landmark Corrigan v. Buckley judgement that ruled that such clauses constituted "private action" and as such were not subject to the Due Process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. As a result of this decision, racial restrictive covenants proliferated across the United States during the 1920s and 1930s. Even the invalidation of such a covenant by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1940 case of Hansberry v. Lee did little to reverse the trend because the ruling was based on a technicality and failed to set a legal precedent. It was not until 1948 that the Shelley v. Kraemer judgement overturned the Corrigan v. Buckley decision in stating that exclusionary covenants were unconstitutional under the Fourteenth Amendment and were therefore legally unenforceable.

Exclusionary covenants today

Although exclusionary covenants are not enforceable today, they still exist in some property deeds and Title insurance policies often contain exclusions preventing coverage of such restrictions.

US Examples

  • Forest Hills Gardensmarker, Queens, New York – covenants forbade the sale of real property to blacks, Jews and working-class people.
  • Jackson Heights, Queens, New York – covenants employed to restrict occupancy to white, non-immigrant Protestants.
  • Washington Park Subdivisionmarker, Chicago, Illinois – restrictive covenants used to exclude African-Americans.
  • Palos Verdesmarker, Los Angeles, California – covenants forbade an owner to sell or rent a house to anyone not of white or Caucasian race and to not permit African-Americans on their property with the exception of chauffeurs, gardeners and domestic servants.
  • Guilford, Baltimoremarker, Maryland – covenants provided for exclusion against negros or persons of negro extraction.

International examples

Although most commonly associated with the United States, racial restrictive covenants have been used in other countries:
  • Canadamarker – Subdivisions such as Westdale, Ontario employed racial covenants to bar a diverse array of ethnic groups such as Armenians and foreign-born Italians and Jews. Opposition to exclusionary covenants was significant in Canada, culminating in the 1945 Re: Drummond Wren ruling by the Ontario High Court which invalidated their use. This judgement was influential in guiding similar decisions in the United States and elsewhere.
  • South Africa – racial covenants emerged in Natal during the 1890s as an attempt to prevent Indians from acquiring properties in more expensive areas and were commonplace across the country by the 1930s. They were later used as a tool to further the cause of apartheid against the black population.
  • Zimbabwemarker – Asians and coloured people were excluded from purchasing or occupying homes in European areas by restrictive racial covenants written into most title deeds.

Title covenants

Title covenants serve as guarantees to the recipient of property, ensuring that the recipient receives what he or she bargained for. The English covenants of title, sometimes included in deeds to real property, are (1) that the grantor is lawfully seized (in fee simple) of the property, (2) that the grantor has the right to convey the property to the grantee, (3) that the property is conveyed without encumbrances (this covenant is frequently modified to allow for certain encumbrances), (4) that the grantor has done no act to encumber the property, (5) that the grantee shall have quiet possession of the property, and (6) that the grantor will execute such further assurances of the land as may be requisite (Nos. 3 and 4, which overlap significantly, are sometimes treated as one item). The English covenants may be described individually, or they may be incorporated by reference, as in a deed granting property "with general warranty and English covenants of title..."

In a historical context

In a historical context, a covenant applies to formal promises that were made under oath, or in less remote history, agreements in which the name actually uses the term 'covenant', implying that they were binding for all time.

One of the earliest attested covenants between parties is the so-called Mitanni treaty, dating to the 14th or 15th century BC, between the Hittites and the Mitanni.

Historically, certain treaties and compacts have been given the name of covenant, most notably the Solemn League and Covenant that marked the Covenanters, a Protestant political organization important in the history of Scotland. The term 'covenant' appears throughout Scottish, English, and Irish history.

The term covenant could be used in English to refer to either the Bundesbrief of 1291, or the Pfaffenbrief of 1370, documents which led to the formation of the Swiss state or "Eidgenossenschaft". In this usage the German "Eid" is being translated as covenant rather than oath in order to reflect its written status.

See also


  1. Covenant. (2008). West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Retrieved August 7 2009 from
  2. Genesis 15:5, 15:18.
  3. Qur'an 36:60, 61.
  4. taken from
  5. Fogelson, Robert M. (2005). Bourgeois Nightmares: Suburbia 1870-1930. New Haven: Yale University Press. pp131-137.
  6. Fogelson, Robert M. (2005). Bourgeois Nightmares: Suburbia 1870-1930. New Haven: Yale University Press. p103.
  7. Correa-Jones, M. (2000). The Origins and Diffusion of Racial Restrictive Covenants. Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 115, No. 4, p543.
  8. Meyer, Stephen G. (2000). As long as they don't move next door: segregation and racial conflict in American neighborhoods. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield. p26.
  9. Fogelson, Robert M. (2005). Bourgeois Nightmares: Suburbia 1870-1930. New Haven: Yale University Press. pp97-98.
  10. Meyer, Stephen G. (2000). As long as they don't move next door: segregation and racial conflict in American neighborhoods. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield. p31.
  11. Meyer, Stephen G. (2000). As long as they don't move next door: segregation and racial conflict in American neighborhoods. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield. p57.
  12. Meyer, Stephen G. (2000). As long as they don't move next door: segregation and racial conflict in American neighborhoods. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield. p94.
  13. Miyares, Ines M. (2004). From exclusionary covenant to ethnic diversity in Jackson Heights, Queens. The Geographical Review. Vol. 94, No. 4, p463.
  14. Fogelson, Robert M. (2005). Bourgeois Nightmares: Suburbia 1870-1930. New Haven: Yale University Press. p15.
  15. Fogelson, Robert M. (2005). Bourgeois Nightmares: Suburbia 1870-1930. New Haven: Yale University Press. p65.
  16. Fogelson, Robert M. (2005). Bourgeois Nightmares: Suburbia 1870-1930. New Haven: Yale University Press. p103.
  17. Walker, James W. St. G. (1997). Race, rights and the law in the Supreme Court of Canada: historical case studies. Waterloo: Wilfred Laurier University Press. pp204-205.
  18. Christopher, A. J. (2001). The Atlas of Changing South Africa. 2nd Edition. London: Routledge. p181.
  19. Baker, Donald G. (1983). Race, ethnicity, and power. London: Routledge. p109.
  20. E.g., Richmond v. Hall, 251 Va. 151, 160, 466 S.E.2d 103, 107 (1996).
  21. E.g., Virginia Code § 55-70.

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