California Couple Files Fair Housing Lawsuit After ‘Erasing Themselves’ from Their Home to See If Appraisal Value Would Go Up

Houses overlook Tam Junction in Mill Valley, Calif., on Wednesday, May 19, 2021. Marin County is the setting for a new fair housing lawsuit that alleges a Black couple’s home was undervalued in the appraisal process because of their race. (Scott Strazzante/The Chronicle)

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 is 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 “white-washed” 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 filed a fair housing lawsuit in federal district court this week against appraiser Janette Miller, her appraisal 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, LLC 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.

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SOURCE: San Francisco Chronicle, Lauren Hepler