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Black couple settles lawsuit after value of their California house allegedly soared when white friend feigned ownership

Paul Austin and Tenisha Tate-Austin said their Marin City residence was valued at $995,000 before a white friend pretended to be owner and received a $1.48 million estimate.
Tenisha Tate-Austin
Homeowner Tenisha Tate-Austin speaks at an event to announce plans to address racial and ethnic bias in home valuations on the White House campus in 2022.Patrick Semansky / AP

A Black couple settled their lawsuit against a real estate company which had estimated the pair's Northern California home to be worth nearly $500,000 less than when a white friend pretended to be its owner, the plaintiff said Wednesday.

Tenisha Tate-Austin and Paul Austin sought to refinance their mortgage in late 2020 so they brought in Janette Miller and her firm, Miller and Perotti Real Estate Appraisers, who assessed the couple's Marin City home to be worth $995,000, according to the plaintiffs' civil complaint.

The Black couple, believing their race played a role in the estimate, then had a different appraiser look through the home.

But this time, "the Austins erased any evidence of their racial identities inside their house, removing family photos and African-themed art" and had a white friend pose as the owner "with photos of her own family," according to a statement by Fair Housing Advocates of Northern California which backed the couple's lawsuit.

That second appraisal, made to the decoy white homeowner several weeks later, came in at $1,482,500, the couple claimed. 

"Even decades after the Fair Housing Act of 1968 we still find evidence of housing discrimination fairly often," Fair Housing Advocates of Northern California Supervising Attorney Julia Howard-Gibbon told NBC News on Wednesday.

As creative a plan as this seemed to be, Howard-Gibbon said the ploy is a well known one within African American real estate circles.

"We've heard from a lot of Black homeowners and this is kind of a known thing," she said. "We've been hearing that Black homeowners have been doing this for years. They know to take down their family photos and have a white friend stand in for them."

The settlement agreement "included an undisclosed monetary amount" and defendants will have to watch a documentary, “Our America: Lowballed,” attend a training session regarding the history of racial discrimination in real estate and promise "not to discriminate in the future," according to the plaintiffs.

While the Marin City homeowners did get their mortgage refinanced, interest rates ticked up in the time it took to get a second appraisal, costing the couple some money, Howard-Gibbon said.

“Having to erase our identity to get a better appraisal was a wrenching experience," homeowner Tenisha Tate-Austin said in a statement.

"We know of other Black families who either couldn’t get a loan because of a discriminatory appraisal and therefore either lost the opportunity to buy or sell a home, or they had to sell their home because they had an unaffordable loan."

Miller, her attorney and representatives of Miller & Perotti Residential Real Estate Appraisers did not return multiple telephone and email messages seeking their comments on Wednesday.