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

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

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.

Two federal laws — the Fair Housing Act of 1968 and the much older Civil Rights Act of 1866 — make it illegal for both home sellers and their real estate agents to discriminate during a home sale. But more than 50 years after redlining was outlawed, racial discrimination remains an issue, housing advocates say. A multiyear undercover investigation by the National Fair Housing Alliance, a Washington-based nonprofit coalition of housing organizations, found that 87 percent of real estate agents participated in racial steering, opting to show their clients homes only in neighborhoods where most of the neighbors were of their same race. Agents also refused to work with Black buyers and showed Black and Latino buyers fewer homes than white buyers.

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.

“Had I not gone to Twitter and received help from people who knew what they were doing, I would have been panicking the entire weekend,” Dr. Baxter said. “It was my first time buying a house. I knew my civil rights were being violated. I knew that something illegal was happening, but no one knew what to do.”

‘Fell Back in My Chair’

Dr. Baxter, who works remotely for Mt. Sinai hospital in New York, currently shares a rented apartment in Alexandria, Va., with her boyfriend, Dr. Ronald Gamble Jr., 35, a theoretical astrophysicist. After a divorce two years ago, she was eager to own a home outright, and Dr. Gamble encouraged her to find a house near the beach, which has long been a dream of hers. He promised to split his time between the new house and Washington, D.C., where he works at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.

Dr. Baxter first saw the listing for the Virginia Beach condo in early May on Zillow, and contacted the agent, Wayne Miller, who offered to visit it for her and provide a tour over FaceTime.

Dr. Baxter kept her camera off while Mr. Miller, who is white, toured the home with Ms. Walker’s agent as one of the guides. The virtual tour was enough for Dr. Baxter to jump with an offer.

“It’s a classic home with a ton of character. It’s absolutely gorgeous and you can walk to the beach. It was like a steal,” she said. “I basically put in an offer sight unseen.”

Two weeks later, with the home sale in escrow and on the same day of a home inspection, Dr. Baxter and Dr. Gamble made the three-hour drive to Virginia Beach to see the house in person for the first time. Ms. Walker arrived as the couple was leaving, and Ms. Walker’s agent, Susan Pender of Berkshire Hathaway RW Towne Realty, introduced the seller to the buyer.

Shortly after Dr. Baxter and Dr. Gamble drove away from the home, Ms. Walker informed her agent that she was not willing to sell her home to a person who is Black and she wished to cancel the sale, according to a chronology of events compiled by Mr. Miller and shared with The New York Times by Dr. Baxter. Mr. Miller declined to comment, and Ms. Pender did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

But what followed, according to Dr. Baxter and Dr. Gamble and supported by Mr. Miller’s recounted, written timeline, was a series of frantic actions by real estate agents on both sides focused on salvaging the home deal.

Ms. Walker’s agent called Mr. Miller to say Ms. Walker wanted to back out of the home sale. Mr. Miller, in turn, called Mr. Loftis, who is the supervising broker for 757 Realty, where Mr. Miller is an agent, to ask for guidance.

As Dr. Baxter was getting ready for bed at a hotel in Virginia Beach later that evening, she got the phone call from Mr. Loftis.

She put the phone on speaker so that Dr. Gamble, who was working on his research in the hotel room at the time of the call, could hear the conversation.

“I kind of fell back in my chair,” Dr. Gamble said. “I could not believe what I was hearing. Well after the Civil Rights movement, after Covid, after George Floyd, you would think society isn’t still thinking this way. But in 2024, they still are.”

In a flurry of emails and calls over the next 24 hours, which were received and recorded by Dr. Baxter and reviewed by The New York Times, Mr. Miller and Mr. Loftis expressed shock at the turn of events and sympathy for Dr. Baxter. They also assured her the home sale would go through despite the seller’s wishes.

They did not immediately offer guidance on how Dr. Baxter could protect herself legally or file a discrimination complaint under the Fair Housing Act. Representatives with both HUD and the National Fair Housing Alliance advised that this should have been their first step.

Dr. Baxter turned to social media just after midnight on Saturday. She was defiant, ending her post with, “Baby, I’m either buying your house or buying YOUR BLOCK. CHOOSE ONE.”

‘We Handled This’

Hours later, Mr. Loftis wrote in an email to Dr. Baxter. “It was unfortunate that the seller took her position to bring Race [sic] into the process,” he wrote. “It sounds like the seller’s kids were able to turn her around. While it was an unfortunate issue, hopefully your purchase is back on track.”

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.”

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