Art exhibit results in federal housing-bias complaint by Black Pittsburgh homeowner
Shirley Salmon-Davis was born in Jamaica and has lived in Pittsburgh for decades. She raised three sons here but said she’s suffered her share of racism. Last year, while putting her East Liberty house up for sale, she wondered how much of a factor her skin color might play in determining the property’s value.
It turned out that a friend's son was an artist with the same idea. And now, the unique art project Salmon-Davis undertook with Harrison Kinnane Smith has led to a federal filing alleging housing discrimination against a local appraisal company.
Salmon-Davis and the Fair Housing Partnership of Greater Pittsburgh announced the complaint May 23. It alleges that Edgewood-based Ditio, Inc., illegally undervalued her single-family house on North St. Clair Street because of racial bias.
The complaint claims Ditio’s appraisal violated the Fair Housing Act of 1988, an amendment to the Civil Rights Act of 1968. It is being investigated by the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity. Ditio did not return a phone message seeking comment.
Research suggests that properties owned by Black and brown people are undervalued all around the country. Salmon-Davis, a professional psychologist and psychotherapist, said she hopes her complaint can help address the problem.
“I am grateful that I can put myself in this position, meaning being the person representing this situation to bring awareness and policy change hopefully,” she said in a Zoom interview.
Smith’s art exhibit, which opened this past September at the Mattress Factory museum, was titled “Sed Valorem.” The part concerning Salmon-Davis’s house was just one aspect of its broader exploration of how Black- and brown-owned homes are overtaxed and undervalued.
For the exhibit, Smith ordered two appraisals of the house, where Salmon-Davis and her family had lived since 2010. The first, completed on May 24, 2021, was done by an appraiser from Ditio, who valued her home at $400,000. The second was conducted by a different company. But first, Salmon-Davis and Smith removed all décor that might identify the home’s owner as Black, including her family photos and African tribal masks. They were replaced by the family photos of Jenna Date, a white friend of hers who also stood in for Salmon-Davis to meet with that second appraiser. This appraisal, conducted just three days after the first, came in at $436,000 – 9 percent higher than the first.
“[T]he act of removing my family’s identity as a Black family from our home and asking a white friend for the favor of representing that her family owned the home, effectively erasing myself from my home of over 10 years, then to see its value increase by thousands of dollars, was an unexpectedly dehumanizing experience,” Salmon-Davis said in a statement.
According to the complaint, both appraisals used the sales prices of comparable nearby properties but took different approaches. Salmon-Davis’s home is in East Liberty, close to the border with Highland Park. East Liberty is about 42% Black, while Highland Park is 16% Black. While both appraisal companies used two of the same comparables, Ditio cited only comparables from East Liberty, while the other company (which is not named in the complaint) used comparables in both East Liberty and Highland Park.
The Fair Housing Partnership also filed its own complaint with HUD in the case to give it standing to pursue policy changes. The group’s executive director, Megan Confer-Hammond, said that while such filings do sometimes result in payments of damages to homeowners, the main goal of this complaint is not punitive. Rather, it’s to spur changes in the industry — such as training appraisers to counteract the effects of implicit bias against homeowners of color.
“I am excited and hopeful at the prospective of having policy changes created in a conciliation here that other appraisal companies can then replicate as an effort towards undoing what has created a status quo of devaluation based on the race of the homeowner or the race of the area the home is in,” Confer-Hammond said.
As for Salmon-Davis, her home did eventually sell, for $447,000 — higher than either appraisal. And while she is currently still living part-time in an apartment in Pittsburgh, she said she is planning to move back to Jamaica soon.