She Made an Offer on a Condo. Then the Seller Learned She Was Black.

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By Debra Kamin, New York Times

Dr. Raven Baxter
Dr. Raven Baxter, a molecular biologist, was in escrow on a new home when she was told the seller didn’t want to hand over the keys to a Black person. (Erin Schaff/The New York Times)

A Black woman claims a white homeowner tried to pull out of a sale because of her race.

Perched on a hill with a view of the Atlantic Ocean, the condo in Virginia Beach was just what Dr. Raven Baxter wanted. It had a marble fireplace, a private foyer and details like crown molding and wainscoting in its three bedrooms and three bathrooms.

At $749,000, it was within her budget, too. She offered the asking price, which was accepted, and sent over a down payment. And then when she was in escrow earlier this month, her broker called her late at night on May 17, a Friday, with some bad news.

The seller wanted to pull out of the deal.

Why? “You could hear the fear and disbelief in his voice,” Dr. Baxter said, recalling what her broker told her next. “He said, ‘I don’t know how to tell you this, but she doesn’t want to sell the home to you, and it’s because you’re Black.’”

The seller, Jane Walker, 84, is white.

Ms. Walker did not respond to requests for comment. Bill Loftis, Dr. Baxter’s broker, said, “We have no comment on this as we can’t do anything to jeopardize our clients [sic] transaction.”

The situation spilled out into the open a few hours later, when Dr. Baxter, 30, a molecular biologist and science communicator who runs the website Dr. Raven the Science Maven, shared what happened in a post on X. Her public airing to 163,000 followers and others has drawn attention to bias that continues to plague the housing industry, and the laws that are supposed to prohibit discrimination, even as Dr. Baxter took steps to continue to ultimately buy the condo.

[…]

Following the recommendation of commenters on her social media post, Dr. Baxter filed a claim of discrimination with the Virginia Fair Housing Office and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. She also reached out to a civil rights attorney.

Mr. Miller called Dr. Baxter, who said she was panicking that she would lose the home. In that conversation, he encouraged her to sign an inspection contingency removal addendum, releasing the seller of all obligations to make repairs on the home, despite the home’s inspection revealing an air-conditioning system that was more than 30 years old and in need of upgrade. Two days later, on the instructions of Mr. Loftis, Mr. Miller sent Dr. Baxter an email with a link to Virginia’s fair housing complaint form.

In an email, Jay Mitchell, a supervising broker at Berkshire Hathaway RW Towne Realty, wrote that neither party had withdrawn from the transaction. “As a company, we condemn any kind of discrimination regardless of the source or the target. All of our agents and staff are fully trained on being aware of discrimination in its many forms,” he said. He declined to answer further questions.

A spokeswoman for Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices, the residential real estate firm owned by Warren E. Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Energy, said that RW Towne Realty was an independently owned and operated company that only licensed the Berkshire Hathaway name.

“Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices and its parent company, HomeServices of America, strictly adhere to The Fair Housing Act and do not tolerate discrimination of any nature,” she added.

Shortly after The New York Times contacted Mr. Mitchell, Dr. Baxter received an email from Barbara Wolcott, the chief executive of Berkshire Hathaway RW Towne Realty.

“In light of the actions of our horribly misguided seller, I feel compelled to send you this email,” she wrote. “Please be assured that the attitude of this individual is not something that is tolerated by Berkshire Hathaway RW Towne Realty, Susan Pender, or anyone within our organization or area.”

When reached by phone and asked how Berkshire Hathaway RW Towne Realty was not tolerating the actions of the seller, Ms. Wolcott said, “We handled this. All you need to know is it was corrected the next day,” and declined to answer further questions.

Dr. Baxter’s home sale remains set to close later this summer. But even if the deal goes through, her rights under the Fair Housing Act have still been potentially violated, said Brenda Castañeda, deputy director of advocacy for HOME of VA, a nonprofit that assists Virginians who believe they have experienced housing discrimination. Real estate agents are required by law to not discriminate, which means they must inform sellers who insist on acting with prejudice that they will not represent them, and extricate themselves from a sale if the seller will not acquiesce. But there are other ways discrimination can play out.

“I don’t know that you can cure discrimination just by changing your mind and going through with the deal,” Ms. Castañeda said, adding that the actions of the real estate agents on both sides could also be a violation. “There may be damages experienced by that person because they’ve experienced a loss of their civil rights and the distress of having a discriminatory statement said to them.”

She added, “Dr. Baxter has experienced harm whether the transaction goes through or not. We just want this to be a wake-up call to people.”

The New York Times has more details.

Black sellers can also face discrimination.

Stay up to date by visiting our breaking news section.

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