I have combined the written information of this article and the on-air conversation that took place on the Wednesday October 14, 2020 Nightline special “Turning Point” series.
Couple says they faced discrimination in home appraisal because of wife’s race
“Why did I let myself forget that I live in America as a Black person?”
October 14, 2020
Couple says wife’s race affected home appraisal
As part of ABC’s “Turning Point” series that explores social justice, Diane Sawyer looks at discrimination in housing.
This report is part of “Turning Point,” a groundbreaking series by ABC News examining the racial reckoning sweeping the United States and exploring whether it can lead to lasting reconciliation. Abena Horton and her husband, Alex Horton, recently did what many homeowners do every day: They requested an appraisal to refinance their Jacksonville, Florida, home.
On the day of the appointment, Abena Horton was there to greet the appraiser who would go over their family’s four-bedroom, four-bathroom ranch style home. But when the Hortons got the appraisal back, they thought the price was shockingly low. “It clicked in my mind almost immediately that I understand what the issue was here,” Abena Horton said.
Abena Horton, an attorney, is Black. Her husband Alex, an artist, is white. Like most married couples, their home is filled with photos of them together, their 6-year-old son and family members from both sides. Their bookshelves include books by Black authors and African American anthologies. She said her first reaction to the appraisal was “a big eye roll.” “This person is being so petty and hateful, and he’s wasting my time,” she said. Even their banker questioned this lowball assessment. “Why did I let myself forget that I live in America as a Black person and that I need to take some extra steps to get a fair result.”
Abena Horton decided to conduct her own experiment. She requested a second appraisal, but this time she had her husband greet the appraiser alone, while she and their young son were out of the house. Prior to the appointment, she removed all photos and books showing he had a Black family. Doing this, hiding this part of their family, was “crushing” for her spirit, Abena Horton said. She felt “ashamed of the fact that my son will see that this is something that I did. I’m ashamed to say that I really wanted to refinance and pay off my house sooner and have full equity in my home, and so I was willing to put up with that indignity to do it because I knew it was going to be effective,” she said. “So it was a combination of pragmatism and deep and profound sadness doing that.” She took down all the photos of her family replacing them with photos of only her husband and his white family.
The second time around, with only her white husband at home, the second appraisal came back showing the value of their home had gone up more than $100,000 – a 40% increase!
At first, Abena Horton said she felt relieved to have the new number, for financial reasons. But then, “I think it was about 15 seconds later when the tears came,” she said. “Because we realize just how much more removing that variable increased the value of our home… To know just how much, me personally, I was devaluing the home just by sitting in it. Just by living my life. Just by paying my mortgage. Just by raising my son there. How much [the first appraiser] felt that that devalued my house, devalued the neighborhood,” she added. She shared her experience on Facebook, and her post quickly went viral, with multiple people commenting that they had tried similar experiments with similar results.
Homeownership and real estate are not the only areas where this type of unconscious or conscious bias has hurt African Americans. Evidence of this comes up when buying a car, getting a loan and applying for jobs, just to name a few. Andre Perry, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, studies discrimination in housing and is the author of the book “Know Your Price.” “What we found, after controlling for education, crime, walkability and all those fancy “Zillow” metrics, that homes in Black neighborhoods are devalued by 23% … and accumulatively, that’s about $156 billion in lost equity,” Perry said, adding that this lost equity “would have financed more than four million small businesses. It would have paid for more than eight million college degrees. That discrimination is leading to a widening of the wealth gap,” he said, “and so one can argue that we’re in worse shape than we were 20, 30, 40 years ago.”
When it comes to housing discrimination, researchers from the University of California at Berkeley released a study in 2018 that analyzed nearly seven million 30-year mortgages and found that Black and Latino applicants were charged higher interest and refinance fees when compared to white applicants.
ABC News’ Diane Sawyer highlighted this issue in a 1991 “Primetime Live” hidden camera investigation. The report featured two young professional housing testers, John Kuhnen and Glenn Brewer, as they conducted various experiments accompanied by hidden cameras.
On paper, both men looked virtually the same. Both went to Big 10 schools, grew up in middle-class families and played on the same softball team. But the big difference is that Kuhnen is white and Brewer is Black. Two young men whose lives were virtually the same in every way but one – the one you could see – their color.
The aim of the investigation was to see how much difference the color of your skin matters in everyday life in America. Throughout their report, we noticed differences in the way Kuhnen and Brewer were treated. For example, when Kuhnen walked into a building to tour an apartment advertised for rent, the building manager gave him the key to the apartment, and more importantly, the building’s master key, the one that opens ALL of the apartments (in case he had difficulty with the apartment key) and allowed him to see the apartment unattended. He told Kuhnen the apartment was available immediately. Kuhnen said he was going to check out a couple more places and he would get back with the manager if he was still interested. When Brewer went in 10 minutes later to tour the same apartment, he was told the apartment had been rented. He told Brewer that early that morning, a woman had put down a deposit on the last available apartment and he has nothing for Brewer to see. Brewer leaves and returns a few minutes later with both Kuhnen and Diane Sawyer in tow. Sawyer questions the manager as to why he showed the apartment to Kuhnen, but told Brewer it wasn’t available? The manager replies, “I told this (black) gentleman I had a call on the apartment,” not knowing both of the encounters had been videotaped. She pointed out that he had told Brewer the apartment had been rented that morning, even though he had showed Kuhnen the place just a little earlier that afternoon. He responded, “Ma’am, I’m not prejudiced! I got Mexicans, I got Jews here…” “How many black people in this apartment building?”, asks Sawyer. He replies, “There’s none.”
In another example, both men went in separately to a dealership to try to buy a car. They spoke to the same white salesman concerning the down payment on the same pre-owned red convertible. Kuhnen was told the down payment would be between 10% – 20%. He told Brewer the bank would require 20% – 25%. The salesman told Kuhnen the price of the vehicle would be $9000. Brewer was told $9500 for the same vehicle. These interactions were also recorded, and when Sawyer questioned the salesman about the different answers the men were given, he could not offer an explanation.
Now, 30 years later, both men are still friends. They both have families and have spent careers working on equality for their communities. They said they also have spoken with many people who saw the ‘91 report, as it has been used in classrooms and in diversity training seminars over those past 3 decades. Their experiences from participating in our investigation have stayed with them. “I remember, at the time, some people talking to me after [the report aired], saying, ‘Well, that took me out of the denial phase,’” Kuhnen said. “And so, [there was] this idea that they were denying that racism even existed in this country.” Kuhnen remarked how, in that incidence, the manager amazingly gave him the master key to all the units, and how strikingly different his encounter was from that of Brewer.
“I think that what we did back then was important work,” Brewer added. “It should have been better by now.” Both have pushed to educate others about unconscious and conscious bias around race and racism. They argue that varying interactions like the ones they experienced can have a lasting impact on a person’s life. “The things that remain very powerful to me are related to housing,” Kuhnen said. “Housing determines your health care, your education, your employment, where you can live, where you want to live. It’s an extreme determinant on other pieces of your life.”
Brewer told Diane Sawyer, “When you start affecting people’s pocketbooks, their wallets, I think that has a serious impact on their life. I knew that there was bias. I knew bias was at work. I just didn’t know how much nicer white people were to each other, than me. I believed I presented myself as a pretty good person — as a pretty decent guy,” Brewer added. “That’s not to say John (Kuhnen); isn’t, but I just thought that, all things being equal, we would receive the same treatment, and we obviously did not.”
Look at some current-day statistics. When it comes to buying cars, minorities pay an average of $410 more per car loan than white people with the exact same credentials. And what about renting an apartment? More recently, a July 2020 study from Suffolk University Law School on renters in the Greater Boston area showed that Black renters were discriminated against 71% of the time!
Here we all are now, almost 30 years after John Kuhnen and Glenn Brewer went undercover for ABC News in St.Louis, MO. These “testers” have stayed friends over the years. Kuhnen is married and a father to two sons. Brewer is also married and is the father of three daughters. As both of these men have both spent their careers working on equality for their communities, they are now seeing a new generation taking to the streets as we wonder, has the country reached a turning point?
Among those watching is Kuhnen’s younger son, Gus, a junior at McAllister College. “I was shown my father’s “True Colors” segment when I was 8 or 9 years old. I think seeing that laid a foundation for my thoughts carried forward.” Brewer’s eldest, Elena (Brewer) Huddleston, is a sixth grade English teacher in St. Louis. She said she and her two sisters have devoted themselves to lessons instilled in them from their father, such as having “a sense of grace, a sense of compassion and a sense of understanding for the connectedness that we all have. He always taught us that there’s this underlying sense of hope. You cannot give up the fight, which is why I believe I became an educator,” Huddleston said. “I wanted to teach young African American children that you can do whatever it is you set your mind to, no matter what anyone says. If there’s a will there’s a way.”
Over these past 30 years, Kuhnen and Brewer have been living their one friendship and their two realities. All the while, wondering how this can still be happening!!??!! Diane Sawyer asks them what would they like to say to themselves, almost 30 years out from the original experiment? Kuhnen says he would tell himself, “This is not changing. What else should you do to try to keep progress moving forward and keep working to make things change.” Brewer says, “I would say to myself, don’t get tired, because the road is going to be a lot longer than you anticipated. Don’t give up.”
As for the Hortons, they said they are focused on their future after receiving a fair appraisal on their home. They also filed a complaint with the Department of Housing and Urban Development against the first appraisal company. Sawyer asks them where do they think the fight for them begins? The Hortons are thinking about ways to make sure other people do not get shortchanged like they originally did. “So I think there is a potential for change, especially on the policy side,” says Alex Horton. “The first thing is there probably needs to be a lot more diversity in the appraisal business,” says Abena Horton. She hopes the appraisers will ask questions of themselves during this process. “Do you really understand how you are making the decision?” She hopes they’ll think to themselves “ There’s something I don’t like about that person. Right? Everywhere you go, you are making a million split-second decisions about everyone you see.” Those superficial assessments should not cloud their professional judgment.
“There needs to be accountability and reform,” says author, Andre Perry. This is about how we value people in this country. And we have got to change this because everyone deserves a shot at the American Dream.”
But while we are waiting on the world to change, the Hortons are navigating how to talk to their young son about what happened. “My parents were very responsible in that they never taught me that I was less than. But they did teach me about the world that I live in, and that in America, I might be perceived as less than,” Abena Horton said. “I think I’m just going to tell [my son] my stories. I’m going to be transparent with him, and he’s going to have to govern himself accordingly in the world that he lives in. I don’t know how I am able to protect him from the cues of the world that are telling him all these things,” she continued. “Some of it he’s going to pick up on his own, and we are going to have to, as parents, navigate that because there is no way that I would willingly crush his spirit and make him feel that he is actually less than because he’s not. He’s fantastic.”
When asked if they would have talks with their son about buying a home or a car or other life experiences, Alex Horton said, “I think we’ll have to. I plan on giving him as much knowledge and information as I can to help him make an informed decision,” he said. “And I think as a parent, that’s my responsibility, and if I do anything less than that, then I’ve failed him.” The Hortons said they hope things will be different and easier for their son by the time he is of age to buy that home or a car.
In the meantime, in order to combat discrimination, Brewer said he always keeps his phone close and will record video of instances that he feels aren’t right. Kuhnen said his strategy is to try to confront or question discrimination as he sees it. With the recent racism reckoning and Black Lives Matter protests that have persisted this summer, both men said they will continue to be optimistic that change is coming. “You have enough people who I believe have good hearts and good spirits, and they’re also standing with African Americans to say, ‘Enough is enough,’” Brewer said. “We are, as a country, better than that. From the very founding of this country, we promised to be better than that, and … it’s long past time to start living up to that promise.”