As the country grapples with systemic racism in policing, a biracial couple in Florida reminds us that Black and Brown Americans not only worry about physical safety, but also their economic security.
Abena Horton, who is Black, and Alex Horton, who is white, recently decided to refinance their Jacksonville home. But as The New York Times first reported, they received an appraisal that was $135,000 higher when Abena Horton and their biracial son were not home, and they had removed all indicators of Blackness from their walls and shelves.
Abena Horton says she felt racism was at play when the couple got their first appraisal back — $330,000 — a low price compared to the other home values in their predominantly-white neighborhood.
Before the second appraisal, they decided to take down family photos containing Black relatives and pictures of former president Barack Obama and her son’s favorite astronaut, Charles Bolden Jr. Books by authors Toni Morrison and Zora Neale Hurston were tucked away, out of sight. The “painful and traumatic experience,” Abena Horton says, took place when her son was asleep.
Left hanging on the walls were holiday cards from white friends and old oil paintings of Alex Horton, she says, in order to make their home appear more white.
When the second real estate appraiser visited, Abena Horton and their son were nowhere to be found. They snuck out the back as the appraiser started looking around, Alex Horton says.
After hiding all signs of Blackness within the home, the Hortons received a second appraisal — $465,000 — 41% higher than the first amount.
“I did know it could happen,” Abena Horton says. “Never in a million years did I think that I would actually experience something so egregious.”
At first, Alex Horton remembers feeling relieved they pulled it off. But the experience haunted him, he says, because his family was wronged by something that could have not only impacted their home refinancing, but hurt their generational wealth.
According to a study by the Brookings Institute and Gallup, homes owned by Black Americans are historically under-appraised.
Discrimination based on race in home appraisals was made illegal by the Fair Housing Act of 1968. But not much has changed, says Andre Perry, author of “Know Your Price: Valuing Black Lives and Property in America’s Black Cities.” He spoke about the issue at the Financial Services Subcommittee hearings on Capitol Hill in 2019.
“Laws changed, but practices stayed the same,” he says.
Segregation and discrimination against Black people is deeply rooted in the country’s history, he says. Many of the appraisal practices still used today were developed during segregation and remain a part of the culture, he says.
After controlling for housing metrics such as education, crime and walkability, the study found “homes in Black neighborhoods where the share of the Black population is greater than 50% are undervalued by 23% — about $48,000 per home,” he says. “That equates to about $156 billion in lost equity.”
The problem doesn’t lie only within appraisers, he says, but rather every aspect of the housing industry — real estate agents and lenders included.
“When we look at Black assets, we judge them like we judge Black people,” he says. “And so we reduce the value.”
Regulating the way appraisers create comparable homes is one part of the solution, he says.
While appraisers can easily see comps in all white suburbs where homes all look alike, they can't see comps in more diverse urban neighborhoods because of racism, he says.
“Bias creeps in — 93% of the appraisal industry is white,” he says. “And so another part of the solution is diversifying the field. We have got to address the bias that's robbing wealth, extracting wealth from Black families and Black communities.”
Appraisers responded to this notion during the Financial Services Subcommittee Hearings Perry was involved in. An appraiser from Chicago, Maureen Sweeney, wrote a letter to the House subcommittee acknowledging there is a problem with poor and underserved communities in the U.S. — but that it’s not the appraisal professional’s fault. Perry says that sentiment is a “white myth that the conditions of Black neighborhoods are a direct result of the people in them.”
Inner cities are often neglected by landlords or city services, he points out. But as a result of “generations-long bias,” appraisers also lowball prices in wealthy, Black neighborhoods as well, he says.
For white people thinking that this isn’t their problem — think again, Perry says. If a Black or mixed family down the street gets under-appraised, the value in the neighborhood also goes down.
Abena and Alex Horton describe their situation as “the ultimate code switch” — pretending to be something they're not in order to receive a fair result. The couple, whose situation originally got exposure after they posted to Facebook, says the Department of Housing and Urban Development has an ongoing investigation into the incident.
“If people are having these feelings, they need to report it,” Abena Horton says. “They should not just be taking this on the chin.”
This segment aired on September 23, 2020.