CINCINNATI — Erica Parker was not prepared emotionally to explain herself to her children.
So she tried to be discreet when taking down their family photos, some treasured artwork and her daughters' superhero pictures. Her 6-year-old saw her, though, and asked, "Mommy, what are you doing?"
"I had to just talk to her," Parker recalled. "And say, you know … we've talked about this before. Sometimes because of the color of our skin, we get treated differently."
The truth was that Parker was "white-washing" their Loveland, Ohio, home, she explained in a video she made later, "where you wash your house in whiteness in order for it to sell."
"It's a sad, damn day in my house," she said quietly in her video. "But gotta do what you gotta do."
The Parkers are Black, and they suspected they were victims of what's known as "appraisal discrimination." That's when a home is valued lower than its actual worth because of the owner's race. A federal task force is studying the problem and is scheduled to make recommendations by early 2022.
"We certainly are hearing stories about this nationwide, about this really acute problem being faced by homeowners of color and Black homeowners in particular," said Michael Neal, a senior research associate with the Urban Institute, who testified on the topic during the federal task force's first meeting Aug. 5. "The balance of the research certainly suggests that this is a challenge and that this is a real issue."
It has been a challenge for Black homeowners for generations, said Aaron Parker, Erica Parker's husband, and it goes far beyond any single incident.
"If our parents know about it, our grandparents know about it, and friends and family," he said, "it's systemic."
'Is this happening to us?'
Aaron and Erica Parker sold their Loveland home quickly – so quickly that they didn't even put it on the market officially. They had planned to list the home for $525,00 and got an offer in the low $500,000 range – without having to deal with multiple showings during the COVID-19 pandemic.
They were ecstatic.
"We were high-fiving each other," Erica Parker recalled. "We were texting our Realtor, like, 'Can you believe it?'"
The problem came later when an appraiser valued the home $42,500 lower than the agreed sales price.
"This should have been a slam dunk in terms of appraisal, in my opinion, based on the comps that we were running," said Amy Goodman, the Parker's realtor and the fair housing officer for Sibcy Cline. "I got the call from the other realtor, and she asked me if I was sitting down. And I was like, well, that's never good. I was shocked. I couldn't believe it."
Goodman and the Parkers requested a copy of the appraisal and found some errors. Although their home was built in 2014, for example, the appraisal listed it as 15 years old. The appraisal also said no updates had been made since the house was built, which was incorrect.
"I've seen appraisals miss by $5,000 or $10,000 – kind of common," Goodman said. "But almost $50,000 is just, just crazy. Never would have anticipated that."
The buyers' realtor asked if the Parkers were going to lower their price. "I was like, no," Goodman said. "We're not going to lower the price. We don't think the appraisal's right."
Goodman and the Parkers asked the appraiser and the buyers' lender to correct the errors in the report. The appraiser refused, they said, saying he stood by his analysis. The lender had a staff member review the appraiser's work and stood by the total, too.
"We became concerned," Aaron Parker said. "At this point, we're like, is this happening to us?"
The Parkers had not hidden their race during that first appraisal. Erica Parker was working from home. And she had not taken down her family pictures, African artwork or her daughters' brown-skinned superheroes.
"Our house sold with those things up," Erica Parker said. "I thought, 'If the buyers are willing to pay, and we're selling it at less than we thought it was going to appraise at when the appraisal came back, this should be a super simple thing, right?' Wrong. Not the case."
A $92,000 difference
The Parkers, who are both human resources professionals, decided to hire their own appraiser for another opinion.
Some white neighbors offered to let the Parkers borrow family pictures to hang in place of their own. Erica Parker carefully removed every sign of their race that she could before that appraisal.
"No one should have to tell their 6-year-old daughter why they're taking down their Black Superman, their Black Catwoman, their Black Wonder Woman, hiding it and flipping it around," she said. "Me explaining to my 3-year-old why her stick figures in the dining room have to be taken down because they're drawn with a Black family. She drew the dog in green, but we were all brown."
She explained to her 6-year-old as best she could after reminding her sometimes they get treated differently because they're Black.
"When things like that happen, we have to be prepared to answer for those things, right? And Mommy and Daddy are going to see if that's what happened to us," Erica Parker said she told her daughter. "And she said, 'OK, Mommy, so something's happening because we're brown?' And I said, 'yes, I don't know for sure. But we have a feeling, so we're going to look into it."
That, Erica Parker said, is when she started crying and decided to document what she was doing.
"I took some videos and walked around the house and – you hear me crying on the videos – because my daughter's watching me take down this artwork that I was very proud of," she said. "This very beautiful picture of a man and a woman, and they're both brown-skinned, in our dining room. And I took that down."
"How am I washing my house in whiteness?" Erica Parker said in her video. "I'm taking pictures down. And turning them around. And I'm going to replace them with my neighbors."
Goodman, who is white, agreed to be present for the next appraiser. She did a final walk-through of the house and took down memorabilia from Aaron Parker's historically Black fraternity – a detail the Parkers had missed.
When that next appraisal came back, the home's value was $92,000 higher than the first appraisal – and nearly $50,000 higher than the agreed sales price.
"I went from like crying to angry to crying, I went back and forth," Erica Parker said. "I didn't really stay in one walk-through too long. My husband was focused because he's like, I knew it. I know it was wrong.'"
'Goes against everything appraisers stand for'
The Parkers are not releasing the names of either of the appraisers or appraisal companies that evaluated their home.
Experts say the problem extends far beyond any individuals or businesses.
Research has found that homes owned by Black and Hispanic homeowners are valued systematically lower than those of white homeowners, the Urban Institute's Neal said, even controlling for such factors as household size, neighborhood amenities and the type of home being appraised.
"The Interagency Task Force on Property Appraisal and Valuation Equity, or PAVE, I think is long overdue, personally," he said, "given the stories that we've heard and, frankly, given the role that historical, systemic racism has played in determining these disparities between people of color and whites."
Much of that research has focused on historically Black neighborhoods, Neal said, but stories of Black homeowners facing challenges in white neighborhoods are common, too.
"It's very widespread, and it's been happening for some time," said Amy Nelson, executive director of the Fair Housing Center of Central Indiana. "My general feeling is because of some recent news stories that African-American homeowners, in particular, feel that when they speak up about it now that they will be heard."
Racial covenants and red-lining made it more difficult for Black families to buy homes in majority-white neighborhoods for decades, Nelson noted.
Appraisal discrimination can mean that even when a Black family like the Parkers achieves the dream of homeownership in a place like Loveland, Neal said, "homeowners of color may not benefit from home ownership to the same degree as their white peers without significant changes in policy."
Appraisal Institute President Rodman Schley said in a written statement that his organization believes the PAVE task force should include "reconsideration of value" and appraisal appeal processes, "as well as creative approaches to financing underserved markets."
"When we see even one story of homeownership feels they were treated differently because of their race, it's very upsetting because that goes against everything appraisers stand for," Schley wrote. "We don't think there is any one solution to a problem rooted in hundreds of years of history. Appraisal is one piece of a larger ecosystem to look at when it comes to housing issues. Appraisal groups are working alongside consumer groups, real estate brokers and agents, banks, government agencies, think tanks and others to explore where housing inequities may stem from and what combination of solutions should be considered."
Documenting the 'ridiculousness'
The sale of the Parkers' Loveland home did go through. The buyers got a new lender that accepted the new appraisal.
But they think about how the deal could have collapsed. The couple had already begun packing, scheduled movers, and signed a lease for a rental while their new house is being built in nearby West Chester.
"At a time when we were excited about selling our home and building a new home, that was all taken away from us because now we are fighting just for basic rights of selling our home for the right value that any other home in our neighborhood was being valued at," Aaron Parker said.
"Anyone knows that real estate is one of the number-one ways to build generational wealth," he said. "An appraisal of $100,000 difference, that impacts not only our pocketbooks, but our children's future pocketbooks. And that — that's concerning."
Erica Parker said she and her husband are grateful they had the time, money and ability to hire another appraiser and fight for what they thought was right.
During that difficult conversation with her older daughter, she thought about how other families face similar hurdles and how her children might face them in the future, too.
The couple agreed to go public with their story, Aaron Parker said, to try to draw more attention to the issue. And to encourage other families of color to stand up for their rights, too, his wife added.
"One of the things that I wanted my girls to see is that things can happen bad, and when they do happen bad, I always say, assume good faith, like I tried. There's mistakes. There's errors. Give people an opportunity to fix," Erica Parker said. "In this situation they decided not to do that. And then if you have the ability to – and you have the means to -- stand up for yourself."
The Parkers have an attorney and are working to determine their next steps legally, they said.
In the meantime, the couple and their realtor are encouraging people to know their rights – and to stand up for themselves if they believe those rights have been violated.
Erica Parker stood in her guest bedroom the day she was "white-washing," far from the chatter of her two little girls.
"There's a picture I forgot. That could be a $5,000 picture. Gonna go ahead and grab that," she said as she focused on a photo of a smiling Black girl in a pink tutu. "I'm taking these videos to document the ridiculousness it is of being a Black, middle-class family in America."
This story was originally published by Lucy May on Scripps station WCPO in Cincinnati.