Closing the Door on Americans’ Housing Choices

For many Americans house prices and rents aren’t the main barrier to finding a decent home. Discrimination is.

This article, created by the Urban Institute, was first published by the Knight Ridder/Tribune wire service.

Newspapers and TV commentaries around the country have been buzzing
with alarm about skyrocketing housing prices. But for many Americans,
spiraling home prices and rents aren’t the only barriers to housing
opportunity and choice. Discrimination – by landlords, real estate agents,
and mortgage lenders – stands in the way of too many families searching for
a place to live.

Discrimination isn’t as overt as it once was; often it is so subtle
that victims don’t even recognize it. Real estate agents no longer tell
African Americans that they are unwelcome in a white subdivision. But an
African-American couple visiting a real estate agent is shown fewer homes
and less affluent neighborhoods than a comparable white couple. And
landlords don’t tell disabled applicants not to apply. But a deaf woman,
using a TTY system to gather information about advertised rentals, can’t get
anybody to accept her calls or answer her questions.

Compelling evidence that discrimination persists comes from a recent
series of “paired-testing” studies by the Urban Institute. In a paired test,
two people (one minority and one white, or one disabled and one
non-disabled) pose as equally qualified homeseekers. Both call or visit a
real estate agent or landlord to ask about a house or apartment advertised
as available. Both make exactly the same request and record all the
information and service they receive.

Because the only difference between these two customers is their
race or disability status, they should receive the same information and
assistance. Systematic differences in treatment – telling the minority
customer that an apartment is no longer available when the white customer is
told he could move in next month, for example – provide direct evidence of
discrimination. Paired testing catches housing providers in the act of

More than 20 percent of the times that African-American and Hispanic
renters ask about advertised apartments, they receive less information and
assistance than comparable whites. Landlords only tell them about some of
the apartments on the market and don’t let them inspect everything that’s

African-American and Hispanic homebuyers face the same sort of
discriminatory treatment from their real estate agents. In addition, they
are sometimes steered away from the most affluent and predominantly white
neighborhoods, where comparable whites are shown homes. They are also less
likely to get help – from either their real estate agent or their mortgage
lender – with the complexities of mortgage financing.

Asian-American homeseekers also receive inferior treatment,
especially in the homeownership market. And Native Americans who try to rent
housing outside their tribal lands face discrimination in almost one of
every three inquiries.
Racial and ethnic minorities aren’t the only Americans whose housing
choices are blocked by discrimination in the marketplace. Paired testing
reveals even higher levels of discrimination against deaf people when they
try to inquire about advertised apartments, using TTY technology, and
against wheelchair users when they visit apartment buildings in search of
rental housing.

While many forms of discrimination occur less frequently today than
they did a decade ago, the discrimination that persists is serious, making
it much harder for minority and disabled homeseekers to find the homes and
apartments they want in neighborhoods of their choice.

Public education provides one essential step toward a solution. A
recent Urban Institute survey found that almost 50 percent of American
adults don’t know that steering homebuyers to neighborhoods on the basis of
race is illegal, and more than four out of ten are unaware of key
protections for the disabled. People who may be victims of discrimination
need to know their rights; landlords and real estate agents need to
understand what actions are prohibited; and all of us need to speak out
against practices that limit freedom of choice.

But education alone isn’t enough. Even if people know their rights,
they can’t exercise them if they aren’t aware they have been discriminated
against. Federal and state governments should provide more support for local
fair housing groups that use paired testing to regularly monitor landlords
and real estate agencies and bring lawsuits against those who violate the
law. Housing discrimination won’t end until violators know they are likely
to be caught and penalized.


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