When the Department of Housing and Urban Development first began to systemically study housing discrimination in the United States in the 1970s, the most blatant forms of it were still common. Blacks were denied appointments to meet with real estate brokers or rental agencies to tour homes that had been publicly advertised. Or they were told those homes were no longer available, a lie that helped perpetuate the racial divides between whole neighborhoods.
Today, illegal incidents like these rarely occur (although they have not disappeared entirely). Discrimination, though, persists in a much subtler form. Minorities in search of a home today typically get to meet the agent and see the property. But they're less likely than whites to then learn about the full range of housing options available to them – to be told "I have another two-bedroom you might like to see," or "let me show you one more house."
"It’s very subtle," says Margery Turner, a senior vice president with the Urban Institute. "It’s pretty much impossible for the victim to detect that this is happening to him or her."
We know, however, that this kind of discrimination takes place across the country based on the results of a sweeping new study released today by HUD and conducted by the Urban Institute. The research is the fourth in a series of HUD-sponsored studies of housing discrimination in America that have taken place roughly once a decade since 1977.
In this latest study, 8,000 pairs of matched testers – one white, one minority, both equally qualified for the home in question – responded to ads for a variety of housing in 28 nationally representative metropolitan areas. Blacks in the market to own a home, for example, were then shown 17 percent fewer properties than whites.
In effect, this practice still constrains housing opportunities available to minorities.
"It still matters," Turner says. "It still really makes a difference. Not only is it fundamentally unfair that somebody doesn’t find out about available housing because of the color of their skin, but it also really raises the cost of searching for housing for minorities, or it restricts their choices."
This may mean that minorities don't find the most affordable housing or the housing located in neighborhoods with the best schools or parks or proximity to jobs. In this study, the race of the rental or real estate agent appeared to have no effect on the results. But minority testers whose race was more easily identifiable – by name, by voice over the phone, or in person – experienced more discrimination than minorities who were more likely to be mistaken as white.
The findings raise a curious question about the property agents on the other side of all these transactions: Are they doing this intentionally? Is there some unconscious bias at work?
"Paired testing is incredibly good at capturing whether discrimination occurs, when it occurs, and what forms it takes," Turner says. "But it doesn’t answer the 'why' question. I don’t know that there really is a reliable way to capture the answer to the 'why' question fully."
There are, at least, a few hypotheses. Of course, conscious prejudice is one of them. Or agents may be assuming that minorities are less likely to be able to afford the home, or to be reliable tenants (in this experiment, however, paired testers were given identical financial profiles). Another theory suggests that whites – even if they're unconscious of it – may be less comfortable interacting with minorities and so may cut short such interactions. "Maybe they don't volunteer as much information," Turner says, "or they don't drive around to yet another house."
The results of this study also likely underestimate the phenomenon. Testers in this experiment were all unambiguously well-qualified for the homes they sought (perhaps a one-bedroom for a single man, or a large home for someone posing as the head of a family of four). If some of this discrimination is rooted in stereotypes about the ability of Hispanics to pay their rent on time, or of blacks to be good tenants, discrimination might plausibly be even stronger for candidates who are marginally qualified for a home.
These are some of the results among renters in the study:
And potential home-owners:
The good news in all of this, Turner says, is that the kind of "blatant, door-slamming" discrimination that was detected in the 1977 study has declined dramatically. But alongside that trend, we might expect to see a steady decline in these subtler forms of discrimination as well. And that hasn't really happened. "It seems to be kind of hanging on," Turner says. "It isn’t dwindling away to nothing."
Historically, the levels of residential segregation that solidified in the era of more overt discrimination have also remained strikingly high today:
"Segregation is in many ways the legacy of past discrimination," Turner says. American communities are racially divided today for a variety of reasons: because of earlier red-lining by banks, because of the history of white flight to suburbia, because of mobility patterns that perpetuate segregation from one generation to the next. But the overt housing discrimination of the past played a significant role in influencing our cities as we see them today. It's harder to say what role this subtler kind of discrimination plays.
It is clear, though, that if the victims of this practice don't even realize it's taking place, fair housing advocates and agencies must be that much more proactive in weeding it out.