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.