graphic of a one hundred dollar bill superimposed inside three houses of different heights with broken green pieces

Unbalanced
How property tax assessments create winners and losers

Shirley Salmon-Davis decided to conduct an experiment on her way out of Pittsburgh, but hoped the findings wouldn’t be so noteworthy.

Salmon-Davis, who is Black, had her East Liberty house appraised twice. To the first appraiser, she presented as the homeowner and left her masks, drum, wooden sculptures and family photos in place. Three days later, a second appraiser was greeted by a white friend and instead examined a house with all indications of Black ownership removed.

“I was hoping that there wouldn’t be a difference, that both appraisals would be the same,” she said in an interview, nearly a year after the two appraisals occurred. “My hope was that I wouldn’t be humiliated or suffer some mal effect as a result of my skin color.”

Shirley Salmon-Davis, formerly of East Liberty. (Courtesy of the Fair Housing Partnership of Greater Pittsburgh)

Appraisals are estimations of the value of a home, typically done prior to a sale or mortgage, that are supposed to be based on the recent sales of comparable homes in the same area. It’s not an exact science, as homes are never identical and thus the comparable prices need to be weighted to account for differences. But appraisals can be evaluated, after the sale, according to how close they came to guessing the ultimate price.

In the case of Salmon-Davis’ former home in East Liberty, a block from the border with Highland Park, the appraiser who she met put the value at $400,000. The appraiser who was greeted by her white friend put it at $436,000. It sold, five months later, for $447,000.

The $36,000 difference was striking enough that Salmon-Davis’ appraisals became a centerpiece of an art installation and an exhibit in the ongoing debate over the persistent underappraisal of properties in minority neighborhoods. 

Now it’s the subject of a housing discrimination complaint filed by the Fair Housing Partnership of Greater Pittsburgh [FHP] with the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development [HUD]. The complaint accuses the Edgewood-based appraisal firm Ditio Inc. of “devaluation” of the house “due to it being inhabited by a readily observable Black family.”

Ditio President Ronan Jones declined comment on the complaint, saying that he does not discuss litigation. He added that to the extent the complaint named an employee, it was a personnel matter, which he also would not discuss.

The complaint reflects a national debate about the fairness of assessments that has, in recent months, spurred a HUD action plan aimed at taking racial bias out of a key part of the property buying process.

“As a society, we often assume that the calculation of value for an inanimate object is without bias,” said Megan Confer-Hammond, the FHP’s executive director, in a press release announcing the filing of the complaint. “I ask Pittsburghers to consider that the same house was appraised three days apart and its value changed by $36,000. What changed in that time?”

Leaving on a bad note

Salmon-Davis, a social worker, psychotherapist and psychologist, moved her family to Pittsburgh 20 years ago and bought a century-old East Liberty house in 2010.

She hosted her friends and her children’s friends there. She also restored the wood floors and moulding and the pocket doors. “I put all of my hard work into the house and hoped to one day sell it and move back home” to her native Jamaica, she said.

As she wrapped up her life in Pittsburgh last year, she talked with a friend about how a Black woman would fare as a home seller.

The friend happened to be the mother of Harrison Kinnane Smith, an Allderdice High School and Yale University graduate and artist who was then brainstorming ideas for an art installation on housing disparities. Smith and Salmon-Davis then planned out the appraisal test.

The former home of Shirley Salmon-Davis, in East Liberty near its border with Highland Park. (Photo by Rich Lord/PublicSource)

Removing her decorations between the two appraisals “was really sad,” said Salmon-Davis. “One wall was full of masks. And I had an African drum,” she recounted. “I had two beautiful wood sculptures, about waist high, Black figures, of wood.” A portrait of Sengbe Pieh, sometimes called Cinque, who led the 1839 slave revolt on the ship The Amistad, also came down.

When the two appraisals came back, she said, “It felt like I was leaving on a bad note, kind of.”

Smith placed the items that Salmon-Davis removed at the center of his installation at The Mattress Factory, which was then exploring concepts of home. The two appraisals hung, framed, on one wall, while the other walls included other explorations of the ways Black homes are devalued by the market while at the same time being overtaxed through systemic problems with property assessments.

When Confer-Hammond saw a PublicSource story about the installation, she contacted
Salmon-Davis and made the case that more should be done.

“We want to create awareness in Pittsburgh, both with the appraisal companies and in Pittsburgh at large,” said Confer-Hammond.

With Salmon-Davis’ blessing, FHP filed a fair housing complaint against the first appraisal firm, Ditio, and the individual appraiser, Brent Wolk. The complaint with HUD’s Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity alleges that Ditio and Wolk undervalued Salmon-Davis’ home in two ways.

  • Ditio did not consider nearby properties in majority-white Highland Park, as the other appraiser did, instead including only houses in more-diverse East Liberty as comparables.
  • Even where the two appraisers chose two of the same East Liberty houses as comparables, Ditio weighted their values downward to a greater extent.

Weighting sale prices to account for differences between houses — like size, number of bathrooms, the presence or absence of a garage — is normal, noted Confer-Hammond. In this case, though, “the two appraisers created incredibly different values, of $36,000 in different values, based on adjusting the comparables with different weights.”

Wolk declined comment.

Boxes full of items suggesting Black ownership, removed from Shirley Salmon-Davis’ East Liberty house, are the centerpiece of an installation art exhibit by Harrison Kinnane Smith at the Mattress Factory in Central Northside. The house was appraised twice — once with a Black person presenting as the owner, and with the African American-themed items, and once with a white person and without the items. The difference was $36,000. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

It’s not uncommon for appraisals to vary, and there is no “rule of thumb” in the industry regarding how different they can credibly be, according to Johnnie White, the CEO of the ASA, formerly the American Society of Technical Appraisers. Appraisals can really only be judged through a review of the assumptions, research and conclusions used, he wrote in response to questions.

Confer-Hammond said the complaint is not a court case, but rather triggers a HUD investigation and a conciliation process.

“We’ll want to explore with this appraisal company what is the basis of how they computed the adjusted values of comparables,” she said. “Maybe they have a practice that is going to disproportionately devalue properties in Black neighborhoods.” If so, she’d like to help them to find a remedy.

If the conciliation process fails, HUD can either determine that no discrimination occurred, or bring the matter before an administrative law judge or to federal civil court. Ultimately the process can result in an award of actual and punitive damages. 

Could Washington PAVE a way forward?

The Salmon-Davis appraisal comes amid increasing scrutiny of the effect of appraisals on the nation’s racial wealth gap.

The median white family has eight times the wealth of the comparable Black family, HUD noted in a March press release. That’s in part because of lower Black homeownership and lower home valuation, HUD has maintained.

Appraisals play key roles in valuation, often affecting that amount that can be borrowed through mortgages and the sales prices.

In mostly white census tracts, just 7.4% of appraisals come in lower than the eventual sale price, according to data released last year by Freddie Mac, a federally created company that underwrites home mortgages. But in mostly Black tracts, 12.5% of appraisals come in low.

About Unbalanced: This year, PublicSource is exploring the effects of property taxes on people and communities a decade after Allegheny County’s last reassessment.

HUD announced a Property Appraisal and Valuation Equity [PAVE] Action Plan, “aimed squarely at dismantling racial bias in the home lending and appraisal process and promoting generational wealth creation through homeownership,” as the department described it.

Among other things, the PAVE plan pledges that the federal government will:

  • Give appraisers “clear guidance on antidiscrimination obligations”
  • Take on potential bias in the models used to calculate appraisals
  • Provide guidance on how appraisals can be reconsidered if they come in lower than expected
  • Expand the examination of mortgages to better identify appraisal bias patterns
  • Require anti-bias training for appraisers that do work tied to federal programs
  • Update appraiser qualifications to lower the barriers to entry into the profession, with an aim to diversifying the workforce.

The ASA is in general agreement with those planks of PAVE, and has started working toward some of them, including anti-bias training and workforce diversity, according to White.

The association agrees that there are “challenges with how minority-owned homes are

valued,” White continued, adding that some of it dates back decades to the “redlining” era when banks declined to lend in mostly Black neighborhoods. The ASA wants further study and “durable solutions,” he wrote.

Confer-Hammond hopes that Salmon-Davis’ complaint will prompt discussion and changes within the accused appraisal firm, throughout the local property evaluation industry and among area policymakers.

Salmon-Davis, who has relocated to her native Jamaica, said she wants to help Pittsburghers “to be aware that this actually happens, and this impacts lives, emotionally, financially, psychologically.”

Rich Lord is PublicSource’s managing editor. He can be reached at rich@publicsource.org or on Twitter @richelord.

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Rich is the managing editor of PublicSource. He joined the team in 2020, serving as a reporter focused on housing and economic development and an assistant editor. He reported for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette...