The Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division filed a statement of interest Monday as part of a private discrimination lawsuit in which a Black couple accuses an appraiser of purposely pricing their home at nearly $500,000 less than the actual value.
In 2020, Tenisha Tate-Austin and Paul Austin of San Francisco sought to refinance their home mortgage. Janette Miller, a licensed appraiser named a defendant in the lawsuit, appraised the couple’s home at $995,000. However, a few weeks later, another appraiser set the home’s value at $1,482,500.
The Austins received the larger appraisal after getting a white friend to pose as Tate-Austin.
The couple said Miller, who is white, used coded phrases like “Marin City is a distinct area” when she valued the property. They said those comments were related to their race and complained to their mortgage lender.
For the second appraisal, they hid photos and artwork with distinguishing African American characteristics and replaced them with those belonging to their white friend.
“We had a conversation with one of our white friends, and she said, ‘No problem. I’ll be Tenisha, I’ll bring over some pictures of my family,'” Tate-Austin told reporters last month. “She made our home look like it belonged to her.”
The couple filed a fair-housing discrimination lawsuit against Miller and her company, Miller and Perotti Real Estate Appraisers, Inc., and AMC Links, LLC.
Miller and her company have filed a motion to dismiss the case, claiming that the couple failed to state a claim upon which a court could grant relief.
“The United States respectfully submits [our] statement to provide an overview of the FHA and to address two questions of law raised in the defendants’ motion,” the DOJ said in a statement. “The defendants assert that the FHA does not apply to residential appraisers. The statute’s text and case law make clear that it does.
“Second, the defendants lay out the elements of a prima facie case and argue that the plaintiffs have failed to allege these elements,” the department said. “But the plaintiffs need not allege facts that make out a prima facie case at this stage. The act simply requires that the plaintiffs allege a plausible entitlement to relief as a result of the defendants’ discriminatory housing practices.”
Austin said he and Tate-Austin researched the market well and upgraded their home before the first appraisal.
“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.”