Black California couple’s home appraisal discrimination lawsuit gets support from DOJ

Department of Justice says appraisal company misinterpreted the 1968 Fair Housing Act

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A Black California couple’s home appraisal discrimination lawsuit received additional support last week from the U.S. Department of Justice.

The DOJ’s civil rights division filed a statement of interest on Monday that supports some of the arguments made in a federal discrimination lawsuit filed last year by Marin County, California homeowners Tenisha Tate-Austin and husband Paul Austin.

After Paul Austin and his wife, Tenisha Tate Austin (above), had their Marin City home appraised with a white-woman friend pretending to own it, its value increased by nearly 50 percent. (ABC7)

The couple’s lawsuit, obtained by theGrio, accuses appraisal management company AMC Links and the Miller & Perotti Real Estate Appraisals firm hired by AMC of undervaluing the Austins’ home by nearly $500,000 due to their race in violation of the 1968 Fair Housing Act.

The Austins purchased their home — located just outside of Sausalito, California in an unincorporated region of Marin County known as Marin City — in December 2016, according to their March 2021 complaint.

Despite becoming more racially diverse in the 1980s and ’90s, Marin City, the Austins argue, is a historically disproportionately Black region that still had a nearly 36% Black population in 2019.

The Austins spent thousands of dollars renovating their house before seeking to refinance their mortgage in 2020, court records show.

The family’s real estate broker arranged an appraisal through AMC Links, which tapped Miller & Perotti licensed real estate appraiser Janette Miller to do the job.

Miller determined the market value of the Austins’ home to be $995,000, a valuation that seemed “unreasonably low,” according to the couple’s lawsuit.

In response, the Austins removed any trace of their racial identities from their house and asked a white friend to pose as the homeowner before arranging a second valuation inspection with a different appraiser days later.

“This different appraiser arrived at a value of $1,482,500 — nearly half a million dollars higher than Miller’s estimated value,” the lawsuit stated.

AMC Links denied that race was a motivating factor in Miller’s valuation in an “answer to complaint” court document filed earlier this year on Jan. 7.

The company filed a motion to dismiss the Austins’ lawsuit three days later, arguing, in part, that the Fair Housing Act “does not apply to the refinance” of the Austins’ home.

“The FHA does not typically apply to the private sale or rental of a single family house by an owner,” AMC’s attorneys wrote in their motion to dismiss. “For these reasons, the FHA does not apply to the Subject Property.”

The DOJ refuted some of AMC’s arguments in its statement of interest on Monday, saying in part that the FHA does, in fact, apply to real estate appraisals.

“The statute’s text and case law make clear that it does,” the agency wrote.

The DOJ also argued against AMC’s contention that the Austins’ complaint failed to establish a “prima facie case,” a legal term that essentially means the Austins haven’t presented enough facts to establish a presumption of discrimination required for their lawsuit to proceed.

“Plaintiffs need not allege facts that make out a prima facie case at this stage,” the DOJ said. “The [Fair Housing Act] simply requires that Plaintiffs allege a plausible entitlement to relief as a result of Defendants’ ‘discriminatory housing practices.”

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