Black woman’s bid to buy Virginia Beach home faces illegal barrier, echoes of the past, by Roger Chesley

6/13/2024, 6 p.m.
People who overstate the racial progress America has witnessed over the past several decades need to be reminded, every so …

People who overstate the racial progress America has witnessed over the past several decades need to be reminded, every so often, of the discrimination that still lurks in housing, education, employment and the like.

An African-American woman’s quest to buy a pricey condo near the Virginia Beach Oceanfront – impeded by the white homeowner’s refusal because of her race – is just the latest example.

The bias Raven Baxter faced, detailed in a recent article in The New York Times, was only unusual in this way: Jane Walker, 84, candidly told her agent why she didn’t want Baxter, a molecular biologist and social media maven with a quarter-million online followers, to buy the condo.

Housing rights officials say discriminatory homeowners and landlords frequently use subtle methods or mask the real reasons why they don’t want people to move in.

In the Virginia Beach transaction, however, the unspoken part was said out loud: Walker didn’t want to sell to a Black person.

The incident got tons of publicity because Baxter wrote about it on X (formerly Twitter), where she has more than 165,000 followers. She also has her own website, Dr. Raven the Science Maven.

“I think that because we’ve come so far in history, we think that things can’t happen anymore,” Baxter, 30, told me this week. “And we forget racism isn’t something that we just leave in the past. It’s something that can pop up at any time.”

Indeed. Progress isn’t always linear. We often move forward in fits and starts. Or even fall backward. Also, unless you’re the person directly affected by such bias, it’s very easy to dismiss.

Baxter seems somewhat taken aback by all that’s happened since she went public with her housing story. “I’ve kind of been overwhelmed [by] how deep of an issue this is,” she said.

She declined to answer some of my questions, including whether she’ll still buy the condo. However, an official with 757 Realty, the company assisting her, told me the closing is scheduled in August.

Baxter also has filed discrimination claims with the Virginia Fair Housing Office and U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, The Times reported.

Baxter was born and raised in Buffalo. She works remotely for a New York hospital and lives in Northern Virginia with her partner, Ronald Gamble Jr., 35, a theoretical astrophysicist.

photo The condo Raven Baxter agreed to spend $749,000 on sits two blocks from the Virginia Beach Oceanfront. Baxter was told the seller didn’t want her to buy the condo because she’s Black.
Photo by Roger Chesley/Virginia Mercury

Baxter wanted to own property outright, and Gamble encouraged her to find a house near the beach, a longtime dream of hers, The Times said.

She viewed the Virginia Beach condo online and liked what she saw. It has three bedrooms, three bathrooms, and a marble fireplace. It’s a stone’s throw from a country club golf course, and it’s a quick walk to the beach and Atlantic Ocean. Baxter contacted a listing agent, did a virtual tour and agreed to the $749,000 asking price. She made a down payment. She and Gamble saw the condo in person May 17.

That’s the same day when the owner’s agent, Susan Pender of Berkshire Hathaway RW Towne Realty, introduced them to Walker, the seller. 757 Realty provided me a chronology of events. That narrative said shortly after Baxter and Gamble left the condo May 17, Walker told her agent – Pender – that she didn’t want to sell to Baxter because of her race. Pender relayed that information to the folks at 757 Realty.

One disagreement between buyer and seller was a decades-old air-conditioning system that needed to be upgraded. It’s unclear if that affected the seller’s attitude and demeanor.

Neither Pender nor her boss returned my messages. No one answered when I rang the doorbell at that condo this week, which is on the Virginia Beach Historical Register.

It’s telling, however, that none of the principals denied the biased statement occurred.

Discrimination in housing in the United States is illegal for home sellers and their real estate agents under the Fair Housing Act of 1968 and the Civil Rights Act of 1866. Yet racial bias remains an issue, along with discrimination based on skin color, national origin, religion, disability and other protected classes covered by federal law.

“We’ve had other complaints of direct use of racial slurs,” Brenda Castañeda, deputy director for advocacy for HOME of Virginia, told me. “I haven’t seen one this blatant or open.”

Her nonprofit organization assists residents who believe they have faced housing discrimination. It also sends in testers of different races to check if people are being given the same information, or whether some folks are steered elsewhere.

Baxter’s story is similar to the claims of actor Wendell Pierce, who says his rental application for a Harlem apartment was rejected by a white landlord.

“Racism and bigots are real,” he said on X this week. “There are those who will do anything to destroy life’s journey for Black folks.”

The National Fair Housing Alliance said in its most recent report covering specific trends that more than 33,000 fair housing complaints were recorded in 2022, the most in a single year.

The tally might only be a fraction of the actual total, the Washington-based coalition said, because “most incidents of housing discrimination go undetected or unreported.”

The organization continued: “Housing providers may lie about the availability of housing units or the monthly rent for apartments, steering Black people, Latinos, Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders, and Native Americans to rent or buy homes only in neighborhoods of color.”

Another problem is the disparate treatment appraisers dole out as property owners place their homes on the market. I’ve written before about how African American home sellers are often given lower appraisals, only to receive more expensive ones when they obliterate any hint a Black family lives there.

John Robertson IV, spokesman for the Virginia Department of Professional and Occupational Regulation, told me the state’s Fair Housing Office has received 318 complaints this fiscal year, which ends June 30. Nearly 25% were race-based. 

Most penalties for breaking the law, though, are civil ones, Castañeda said. Rarely does anyone face jail time.

That should change. Without the threat of going behind bars, there’s little to compel racist property owners to do the right thing.

The whole situation has been a whirlwind for Baxter, who thought buying the condo would be routine.

“The only color that should matter in a real estate transaction is green,” she told me.

Even in 2024, that’s not always the case.

The writer is columnist at the Virginia Mercury, where this commentary was originally published.