A Black couple in Marin City, California, recently settled a housing discrimination lawsuit against their real estate appraiser for lowballing the value of their home due to racial bias. Paul Austin and his wife, Tenisha Tate-Austin, sued the appraiser after a white friend posed as the owner of their home and the appraised value leaped 49 percent to $500,000 higher.
According to a report by the San Francisco Chronicle, the Austins sued Janette Miller and her firm, Miller and Perotti Real Estate Appraisers, for appraising their home at $995,000 in Jan. 2020. The price gave them pause because they’d had their home appraised in March 2019 and it was valued at $1.45 million.
Marin City is a historic Black community 10 minutes north of San Francisco, in which homes going up for sale are rare. So, when Paul and Tenisha saw the home listed for $550,000 in 2016, they jumped at the opportunity. They said they also invested $400,000 in expansions and renovations to the house in 2017 and 2018.
This added to their suspicion about the lower appraisal.
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In response, the couple had a friend of theirs, who is white, pose as the homeowner. They also made it a point to “white-wash” the home by removing any photos or art to indicate Black people lived there. When the house was appraised again, the Austins’ home was valued at $1,482,500.
“Having to erase our identity to get a better appraisal was a wrenching experience,” Tate-Austin said in a statement. “We know of other Black families who either couldn’t get a loan because of a discriminatory appraisal and therefore either lost the opportunity to buy or sell a home, or they had to sell their home because they had an unaffordable loan.”
In court filings, the Austins accused Miller of racial discrimination. “Race was a motivating factor in Miller’s unreasonably low valuation of the Austins’ house, in violation of the Fair Housing Act and related federal and state laws. Accordingly, the Austins seek monetary, declaratory, and injunctive relief,” the filing said.
A non-profit called Fair Housing Advocates of Northern California (FHANC) joined the Austins in the case as co-plaintiffs. “Unfortunately, their experience is not unique,” said Carolyn Peattie, executive director FHANC. “Studies show that Black and Latinx applicants are more likely than white applicants to receive an appraisal value lower in both the sales and refinancing process.”
Though the settlement amount has not been disclosed, it mandates that Miller’s company “agrees not to discriminate in the future.”
Miller must also attend a training by FHANC about the history of segregation and real estate-related discrimination in Marin County to help prevent discrimination in the future; and watch the ABC documentary “Our America: Lowballed” – which delves into bias in appraisals.
The couple said they hope their case will help spur much-needed change and help prevent housing appraisal discrimination. They encouraged others to fight against it if they were also victims.
“We’re glad that we can put this lawsuit behind us,” Austin said. “Having to experience everything that came with receiving the lowballed appraisal was overwhelming. Being able to tell our story and knowing we had legal recourse helped. We want others to know that if you experience discrimination, you can go to your local fair housing agency so they can investigate your case and help you if you want to file a complaint.”
Julia Howard-Gibbon, an attorney who represented the Austins and FHANC agreed.
“The crux of this case has much more to do with the indignity of what they believe to be a racially biased appraisal rather than the monetary damages,” Howard-Gibbon told NPR.