A Black couple ‘erased themselves’ from their home to see if the appraised value would go up. It did — by nearly $500,000
Dec. 3, 2021 Updated: Dec. 5, 2021 6:29 p.m.
Paul Austin thought things were going well when the appraiser came to his Marin City home last January.
The appraiser complimented the views of the San Francisco Bay, and he was sure to point out all the improvements, Austin recalled at an Oct. 13 meeting of a state reparations task force. So he and his wife Tenisha Tate-Austin were shocked when the appraisal valued their home at $995,000 — nearly half-a-million dollars less than another appraisal 10 months earlier.
The couple, who are Black, got a second opinion last February. This time, they asked a white friend named Jan to sit at the kitchen island and pretend to be the homeowner. They also “whitewashed” their home by hiding art and family photos. That appraiser said their house was worth $1,482,500.
The $487,500 discrepancy between the two 2020 appraisals pushed the couple to file a fair housing lawsuit in federal district court this week against appraiser Janette Miller, her firm Miller and Perotti Real Estate Appraisers Inc., and national appraisal company AMC Links LLC. It’s the latest escalation in a series of similar cases of alleged racial bias in the home appraisal process as California property owners move to reap financial gains from record home prices.
“We did our homework,” Austin told the Reparations Task Force in a panel on the racial wealth gap in October. “We believe the white lady wanted to devalue our property because we are in a Black neighborhood, and the home belonged to a Black family.”
Miller’s firm and AMC Links did not respond to requests for comment.
Researchers at the Brookings Institution have found that owner-occupied homes in majority-Black U.S. neighborhoods are undervalued by an average $48,000 per home, representing some $156 billion in cumulative losses — a dynamic that has prompted calls for policy reform to automate more of the home valuation process and otherwise minimize bias. Some in the appraisal industry, meanwhile, contend that the process is inherently subjective and driven by extreme pressure to increase home values, opening appraisers to unfair personal liability when homeowners disagree with the results.
In the case of Austin and Tate-Austin, the large appraisal discrepancy illustrates how even Bay Area residents able to purchase a home in one of the nation’s most expensive real estate markets can be shut out of some of the massive wealth generated by increasing property values.
The Austin family bought the home in late 2016 for $550,000, according to the lawsuit, and Austin said they spent around $400,000 expanding the footprint, renovating the interior and adding features like an outdoor deck and an in-law unit with bay views. With the higher second appraisal designed to take race out of the equation, the home is now worth nearly triple what they paid five years ago.
“There are definitely things about this complaint that are uniquely strong,” said the couple’s attorney, Julia Howard-Gibbon of Fair Housing Advocates of Northern California. “They erased themselves from the home, essentially.”
Though similar cases with extreme differences in appraisal values have also surfaced in Oakland, Stockton and other California cities with large Black populations, the new lawsuit revolves around the North Bay’s unique racial dynamics.
Austin knows firsthand that Marin City, an unincorporated area wedged between affluent Sausalito and Mill Valley, grew out of the pre-World War II migration of tens of thousands of Black workers seeking employment around the Sausalito shipyard. His own grandparents lived and worked there.
Though they saved money to move to other areas of Marin County, Austin said in his October testimony, they were unable to buy property elsewhere because of exclusionary practices like discriminatory bank lending and racial covenants.
The fact that his family encountered what seemed like a new version of the same old problem more than a half-century later, he said at the October meeting, made him feel ill.
“My stomach hurt, my head hurt, just because of what we went through,” Austin said. “I don’t wish that on anybody.”
Attorneys for the couple argue in the new lawsuit that “Marin City has a long history of undervaluation based on stereotypes, redlining, discriminatory appraisal standards, and actual or perceived racial demographics.”
By focusing the first appraisal only on the small number of homes sold in the immediate Marin City area, Howard-Gibbon said the appraiser “built an invisible barrier” around the home by comparing it only to other sale prices in a long-marginalized area — a result she called “recycled discrimination.”
The plaintiffs are seeking a jury trial, financial damages and a court order directing the appraisers to take action to ensure the issues in the complaint are not repeated.
Austin said at the October meeting that he is also focused on ongoing issues like recent desegregation orders issued for Marin County schools. He still can’t help but notice that neighbors’ homes on smaller lots have already crept up to values around $1.6 or $1.7 million.
“Yes, I do want to see a change,” Austin said. “I don’t want to see my children have to deal with this.”
Lauren Hepler is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @LAHepler