116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Historically considered the first step in building wealth, buying a home is not happening for younger generations at the rates it did for their parents and grandparents. There are a number of reasons for this: fear of debt, the skyrocketing costs of housing, wages that haven’t kept pace with inflation. In a world with so much uncertainty, waiting is the logical choice. It is, however, a phenomenal time to be a seller. Despite hesitance among younger generations, the limited stock of housing is in high demand and claiming high prices as compared to even just a few months ago.
An important step in the process is an appraisal. How much is this old house really worth? As it turns out, despite detailed methodology and processes designed to create a consistent result, bias on the part of an appraiser may come into play.
Certain they had been shorted on their appraisal in 2021, one family opted to remove all indications of their ethnic background from the home and solicit the help of a white friend to meet with the appraiser in their absence. The home’s appraised value shot up half a million dollars. The family filed a fair housing discrimination lawsuit against the appraiser, who attempted to evade culpability by insisting that the Fair Housing Act does not apply to residential appraisers. The Department of Justice intervened with a statement on behalf of the family, and the case proceeds.
While the subjectivity of appraisals may be surprising to some, this is far from an isolated case. Freddie Mac performed a study of over 12 million appraisals and found that the “majority” of appraisal firms showed statistically significant widespread racial gaps. Of the nearly 80,000 appraisers in the United States, 85 percent are white and less than 2 percent are Black.
Further, the impacts of housing discrimination have historic roots right here in Iowa. The African American Museum of Iowa’s current exhibit, “Mapping Exclusion: Redlining In Iowa,” highlights the impact of redline mapping in seven Iowa cities, including Cedar Rapids. In a New York Times article explaining the history of the practice, writer Candace Jackson states that redlining has been used to describe “racial discrimination of any kind in housing, but the term itself comes from the government maps that outlined areas where Black residents lived and were therefore deemed risky investments.” One of the first and most jarring items in the museum’s redlining exhibit is Section 1 of the Blacks and Mulattoes Act that reads in part, “no black or mulatto person shall be permitted to settle or reside in this Territory unless he or she shall produce a fair certificate … of his or her actual freedom.” In addition to handing over their papers, the person also was required to hand over a $500 bond to the county and seek approval for residence from the board of county commissioners.
The battle for personhood and citizenship continues when people of color are forced to pay more than white people for the same goods and services - perhaps in the form of a higher interest rate on a mortgage. Or, when they receive less value than a white person would - let’s say, for the sale or refinance of their home.
Biden’s PAVE task force (Property Appraisal and Valuation Equity action plan) led by Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia Fudge and White House domestic policy adviser Susan Rice is working to address appraisal inequity on a national scale. The task force, however, was just announced in 2021. The damage done by over a hundred years of redlining continues to affect generations of Americans attempting to overcome the same rates of inflation, the same escalating food and fuel prices, the same barriers facing us all.
This is the point willfully missed by so many flippant bootstrappy comments brushing off the impacts of inequity: The playing field is not, and has never been level. Even if we make adjustments today that magically garnered everyone the same opportunities, there would still be the gaping wound of all the inequity to this point that has already caused lost income, lost health, lost education, lost generational wealth, lost life to minority populations. Additionally, the events that affect our national economy, our families, our workforce and our pocketbooks have an outsized impact on those already facing undue barriers related to structural racism. Put colloquially, when white America catches a cold, Black America catches pneumonia.
Try to catch that phenomenal exhibit at the African American Museum of Iowa before its run comes to an end Aug. 6, and in whatever capacity you have agency, advocate for equity in your own community.
Sofia DeMartino is a Gazette editorial fellow. Comments: email@example.com