She made an offer on a condo. Then the seller found out she was black.

Perched on a hill overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, this condo in Virginia Beach was exactly what Dr. Raven Baxter wanted. It featured 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 also within her budget. She offered the asking price, which was accepted, and sent the down payment. And then when she was in escrow earlier this month, her broker called her late at night on Friday, May 17, I have brought some bad news.

The seller wanted out of the deal.

Why? “You could hear the fear and disbelief in her voice,” Dr. Baxter said, recalling what her broker said next. “She said, ‘I don’t know how to tell you this, but she doesn’t want to sell you the house, and it’s because you’re black.’”

The seller, Jane Walker, 84, is white.

Ms. Walker did not respond to requests for comment. Dr. Baxter’s broker, Bill Loftis, said: “We have no comment on this as there is nothing we can do to put our clients at risk [sic]Exchange.”

The situation came to light a few hours later when Dr Baxter, 30, a molecular biologist and science communicator who runs the website Dr. Raven Science Expertshared what happened in a post on X. Public broadcasting The message, delivered to 163,000 followers and others, has drawn attention to the bias that continues to plague the housing industry, and to laws that are meant to prevent discrimination, even as Dr. Baxter takes steps to finally purchase 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 the sale of a home. 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 engaged in racial gerrymandering, choosing 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 posts, Dr. Baxter filed a discrimination claim with the Virginia Fair Housing Office and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. She also contacted a civil rights attorney.

“If I didn’t go on Twitter and get help from people who knew what they were doing, I would have panicked all weekend,” Dr. Baxter said. “This was my first home buying experience. I knew my civil rights were being violated. I knew something illegal was going on, but no one knew what to do.”

Dr. Baxter, who works remotely for Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, currently lives in a rented apartment in Alexandria, Virginia, with her boyfriend, Dr. Ronald Gamble Jr., 35, a theoretical astrophysicist. After her divorce two years ago, she was eager to become a homeowner, 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 home and Washington, D.C., where he works at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.

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

Dr. Baxter kept his camera off while Mr. Miller, who is white, toured the home with Ms. Walker’s agent as a guide. The virtual tour was enough for Dr. Baxter to make an offer.

“It’s a classic home with a lot of character. It’s absolutely beautiful and you can walk to the beach. It was a steal,” she said. “I basically put in an offer without even seeing it.”

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

According to a chronology of events compiled by Mr. Miller and shared by Dr. Baxter with The New York Times, shortly after Dr. Baxter and Dr. Gamble left the house, Ms. Walker informed her agent that she did not want to sell her home to a black person and that she wanted to cancel the sale. Mr. Miller declined to comment, and Ms. Pender did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

But according to Dr. Baxter and Dr. Gamble, and supported by the written version of events described by Mr. Miller, what happened next was that swift action was taken by real estate agents on both sides to save the home deal.

Ms. Walker’s agent called Mr. Miller to tell him that Ms. Walker wanted to back out of the sale of the home. Mr. Miller, in turn, called Mr. Loftis, the supervising broker at 757 Realty, where Mr. Miller is an agent, asking for guidance.

That evening, as Dr. Baxter was getting ready for bed at a hotel in Virginia Beach, she received a call from Mr. Loftis.

He 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 fell backwards in my chair,” Dr. Gamble said. “I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. After the civil rights movement, after COVID, after George Floyd, you would think society still didn’t think this way. But in 2024, they still do.”

In the next 24 hours, several emails and calls, received and recorded by Dr. Baxter and reviewed by The New York Times, were received by Mr. Miller and Mr. Loftis, who expressed surprise at the turn of events and sympathy for Dr. Baxter. They also offered assurances that the house would sell regardless of the seller’s wishes.

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

Dr Baxter took to social media just after midnight on Saturday. She ended her post with, “Baby, I’ll either buy your house or your block. Pick one.”

A few hours later, Mr. Loftis wrote in an email to Ms. Baxter. “It was unfortunate that the seller took their position to bring the race [sic] “This process is very difficult to navigate,” he wrote. “It appears the seller’s children were able to get it back. While this was an unfortunate issue, hopefully your purchase will be back on track.”

Mr. Miller called Dr. Baxter, who said she was nervous she would lose the house. In that conversation, he encouraged her to sign an addendum removing the inspection contingency, which released the seller from all obligations to make repairs to the house, even though the home inspection revealed that the air-conditioning system was more than 30 years old and needed an upgrade. Two days later, at Mr. Loftis’s direction, Mr. Miller sent Dr. Baxter an email with a link to Virginia’s fair housing complaint form.

Jay Mitchell, supervising broker at Berkshire Hathaway RW Towne Realty, wrote in an email that neither party has decided to back out of the transaction. “As a company, we condemn discrimination of any kind, regardless of the source or target. All of our agents and employees are fully trained to be aware of the many forms of discrimination,” 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 R.W. Towne Realty is an independently owned and operated company that simply licenses 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 kind,” he said.

Shortly after The New York Times contacted Mr. Mitchell, Dr. Baxter received an email from Barbara Wolcott, the chief executive officer of Berkshire Hathaway R.W. Towne Realty.

“Given the actions of our extremely misguided salesperson, I feel compelled to send you this email,” she wrote. “Please be assured that this individual’s attitude is not one that can be tolerated by Berkshire Hathaway RW Towne Realty, Susan Pender, or anyone in our organization or region.”

When reached by phone and asked why Berkshire Hathaway RW Towne Realty was not tolerating the seller’s actions, Ms. Wolcott said, “We took care of it. All you need to know is it was fixed the next day,” and declined to answer further questions.

The sale of Dr. Baxter’s home is scheduled to be completed later this summer. But even if the deal goes through, her rights under the Fair Housing Act have potentially been violated, said Brenda Castaneda, deputy director of advocacy for Homes of VA, a nonprofit that helps Virginians who believe they have experienced housing discrimination. Real estate agents are required by law not to discriminate, which means they must inform sellers who insist on working with bias that they will not represent them, and recuse themselves from the sale if the seller does not agree. But there are other ways discrimination can occur.

“I don’t know that you can eliminate discrimination just by changing your mind and making a deal,” Ms. Castaneda said, adding that the actions of real estate agents on both sides also could be violations. “That person may be harmed because he or she experienced the loss of his or her civil rights and the distress that comes from hearing discriminatory statements.”

He added: “Dr Baxter has suffered a loss whether the transaction took place or not. We just want this to be a warning to people.”


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