Black couple settles lawsuit after home valuation increased when white friend posed as owner

A Black couple has settled their lawsuit against the real estate company that estimated their house was nearly $500,000 more valuable when their white friend posed as its owner.

According to their civil complaint, the saga began when Tenisha Tate-Austin and Paul Austin decided to refinance their mortgage in 2020. The couple hired the firm Miller and Perotti Real Estate Appraisers to appraise their home in Marin City, an unincorporated community just north of San Francisco, and were told that it was worth $995,000.

That number seemed low to the Austins — and they were suspicious that their race had something to do with the potentially deflated value.

The couple then got a second appraiser to come and look at their home, but this time had a white friend of theirs pose as the house’s owner. The friend was the only person present at the time of the inspection and replaced photographs of the Austins’ family inside the house with photos of her own family. This time, the couple said, the home was valued at $1,482,500.

“The Austins’ case was a dramatic example of how an unfairly low appraisal can affect your ability to access a loan with good terms and build generational wealth,” Fair Housing Advocates of Northern California (FHANC), which supported the Austins in the suit, wrote in a release following news of the settlement. “Unfortunately, their experience is not unique.”

There is a long history of racial discrimination in real estate in the US, with Black homeowners and homeowners in majority-Black neighborhoods seeing the values of their homes artifically deflated as compared with similar homes in whiter neighborhoods.

FHANC noted that, as of July 2019, 36 percent of Marin City’s residents were Black while just three percent of Marin County’s residents were.

“Appraisers likely still view neighborhoods and relevant comps based on racial demographics, which is part of what what we believe happened in the Austins’ case,” the FHANC statement read.

The Austins will be paid an undisclosed monetary sum as part of the settlement. The defendants will also be required to watch the documentary film “Our America: Lowballed,” an ABC News production about racism in American real estate that features the Austins’ story. They’ll also have to attend a training session on the subject in Marin County presented by FANHC.

“We’re glad that we can put this lawsuit behind us,” Paul Austin said in a statement. “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.”