A major new study on housing discrimination released this week by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) shows persistent discrimination in sales and rental markets against Latinos, Asians and African Americans.
Employing a “paired testing” methodology, researchers compared the treatment of white and minority homeseekers in 28 metropolitan areas. In the 8,000 paired tests, two trained testers with equal personal and financial characteristics (one white and the other black, Hispanic, or Asian), inquired about rental and home ownership possibilities and tracked the treatment as well as the housing opportunities that were presented. The report found that real estate agents and rental housing providers are still recommending and showing fewer available homes and apartments to minority families than to whites.
However, as is often the case in social science, the conservative research methods used (in this case by the Urban Institute, which is always particularly careful in its research methods) tend to underestimate the extent of the problem being studied.
For example, the report finds that African American renters are told about 11.4 percent fewer rental units, and Latino renters are told about 12.5 percent fewer rental units, than white renters. This statistic is certainly alarming — but what is more disturbing is that much larger numbers of African Americans and Latinos receive different information about rental units than their white counterparts — the numbers reported in the study represents the net difference between the number of units whites are told about and the number units black and Latino testers were told about. But the underlying difference in treatment, based on the data in the report, may be significantly higher.
Another potential way that the report underestimates the degree of discrimination in the rental housing market is by taking a snapshot of available units across an entire metro area — including large numbers of units in neighborhoods where “minority” families are in the majority and rarely face discrimination. This averaging of discrimination data across an entire metro area can mask the true rates of discrimination that may be occurring in predominantly white, traditionally more exclusionary communities and rental complexes. While the Urban Institute tried to correct for this with a regression analysis (and found no statistical relationship between racial composition of neighborhood and levels of discrimination), we believe that more targeted testing would be needed to fully explore this question.
As the report also acknowledges, the paired testers who were sent out to look for apartments were prepped to be undeniably qualified for the units they were applying for, which may not always reflect the experience of the average renter. Thus, the report does not reflect the degree of discrimination faces by renters of different races who have more marginal qualifications for their units.
We are grateful for HUD’s support for this important study, and the Urban Institute’s hard work to see it through to conclusion. Even though housing discrimination has become more subtle than it used to be, it will now be hard for anyone to deny that it still exists. Some of the report’s techniques will also set a new standard for future research seeking to uncover subtle forms of discrimination — including the report’s analysis of the racial/ethnic identifiability of all testers based both on name/speech and on name/speech/appearance (which showed that homeseekers who are more readily identified as people of color face higher discrimination) and looking at differences of treatment at various points in the housing search process (from initial phone or email contact through the in-person visit).
The report’s conclusions and recommendations point to the need for more fair housing testing combined with enforcement to uncover discrimination that may not be apparent to an individual family looking for housing. There is also a pressing need for more national research on discrimination against Section 8 voucher families, and of course more research on the impacts of HUD housing programs on patterns of segregation and opportunity. If only Congress would expand HUD’s budget to support this additional research (after it restores the funds recently cut out of essential housing programs for low-income families!)