Excerpted From: Adam Cowing , Race and (De)valuation in Housing Markets , 31 Journal of Affordable Housing & Community Development Law 305 (2023) (64Footnotes) (Full Document)   Review of Race Brokers: Housing Markets and Segregation in 21st Century Urban America Elizabeth Korver-Glenn, Oxford University Press (2021) 240 pages; $99.00 (cloth); $27.95 (paper); $9.99 (ebook)


NophotoMaleAs rising housing costs demand national attention, there is growing momentum to liberalize land use policies to improve affordability and remedy past exclusion. Building more housing has the potential to expand housing opportunities broadly, including among communities that have faced historic discrimination. But Race Brokers: Housing Markets and Segregation in 21st Century Urban America, by Elizabeth Korver-Glenn, complicates the idea that development alone will remedy housing disparities related to income and race. Indeed, the most powerful--and problematic--finding of Race Brokers is the extent to which race impacts appraised home values, which suggests that simply developing more housing will not close the nationwide wealth gap between white families and families of color.

Korver-Glenn is a sociologist, and Race Brokers takes Houston as a case study. In some ways unique and in other ways quintessentially American, Houston is the fourth largest city in the country and, at the time of the book's writing, the fastest growing city in the country. By many measures, it is the country's most ethnically diverse metropolitan area, with significant Black, Latinx, and Asian populations and no racial majority. Houston also has one of the most active housing markets in the country. The city constructs more homes each month than any U.S. city except Dallas-Ft. Worth and has one of the most active markets for buying and selling homes.

Houston is famous for lacking a traditional zoning code. The city's pro-growth approach to land use policy may explain why it has remained affordable compared to places like New York City and Los Angeles. And this affordability has opened up homeownership opportunities to greater, and more diverse, populations. In theory, this expansion of housing opportunities could help to reduce disparities and segregation. Yet, like most American cities, Houston remains divided by race. Race Brokers attempts to explain why.

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Finally, for appraising practices, Korver-Glenn recommends abandoning or at least changing the sales comparison approach, instead using a modified cost approach to appraise home values. As she notes, this transition is unlikely to happen. But it would also go too far. While it is problematic for appraisals to be affected by neighborhood racial characteristics--or the race of the homebuyer--ignoring the role of location in appraisals is too blunt an approach. Neighborhood characteristics and amenities have obvious impacts on how homes are valued, which cannot be ignored. The problem is that appraisals are apparently not only influenced by these factors but by race, so reforms should focus on how to systematically remove racial considerations from the appraisal process, without removing neighborhood characteristics altogether.

Some of Korver-Glenn's other recommendations would do just that. One recommendation is to require the appraisal industry to borrow from real estate economics to quantify demand based on objective factors like the number of days a home is on the market and the percentage of homes that sell for lower than list price. Another recommendation is to develop software that can compare similar homes across metropolitan areas based on home characteristics and local amenities. It is unclear how realistic these are-- particularly if it means putting individual appraisers out of work--but approaches based on objective criteria exclusively are worth exploring. While the details of either recommendation need more attention, some form of standardization to remove race from consideration in the appraisal process is due.

Housing remains one of the most critical ways in which racial attitudes in America translate into material outcomes. Given this context, housing market professionals must think deeply about a range of policy interventions and industry practices that would prevent real harms caused by the racial attitudes that Korver-Glenn uncovers. The role of race in home appraisals, in particular, presents one of the most troubling findings of Race Brokers, with direct implications for closing the racial wealth gap in the United States and expanding opportunity in all communities. It merits grappling with by those involved in that industry. At the same time, we might all grapple with why the attitudes described in Race Brokers persist.


Adam Cowing is a Clinical Lecturer in Law, a Research Scholar in Law, and the Eugene Ludwig/Robert M. Cover Fellow in Law at Yale Law School.