There can be no question that access to housing remains unequal. Despite long-standing laws guarding against discrimination, members of disadvantaged groups have a harder time finding a high-quality place to live in a high-opportunity neighborhood. It’s far less obvious, however, whether—or how much—these disparities result from discrimination, because disadvantaged groups often differ systematically in employment, income, assets, and debts. That’s where the Urban Institute’s paired-testing research comes in.
Paired testing, also known as auditing, is an effective and intuitive way to test whether and in what form discrimination exists. In a paired test, two people are assigned fictitious identities and qualifications that are comparable in all key respects. The identities differ only on the characteristic (for example, race or presence of a disability) being tested. Each tester of a pair then makes a similar request (information on available apartments, for example) and documents the interaction. With an appropriate sample of tests and statistical techniques, paired testing can single out discrimination.
For more than two decades, Urban has been a leader in paired-testing research, conducting national studies of rental and sales market discrimination and extending paired testing to measure lending discrimination, hiring discrimination, and discrimination by mortgage lending institutions. In partnership with the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Urban has sent thousands of trained testers into numerous metropolitan areas to document how and if members of disadvantaged groups are treated differently in the housing market. The data make it clear: America’s long journey to end housing discrimination remains unfinished. Urban’s paired-testing studies have helped make the case for stronger enforcement and have helped target resources to fighting new forms of discrimination.
Racial and ethnic minorities
Urban first measured discrimination against racial and ethnic minorities in 1989, revealing high levels of discriminatory treatment toward Hispanics and African Americans in both rental and sales markets nationwide. Roughly a decade later, the 2000 Housing Discrimination Study found statistically significant levels of discrimination against African American, Hispanic, Asian, and Native American homeseekers, though the overall incidence of discrimination had declined. Urban’s latest study, published in 2012, found that while instances of overt “door-slamming” discrimination had continued to drop, real estate agents and rental housing providers recommend and show fewer available homes and apartments to minorities than equally qualified whites. These insidious forms of discrimination raise the costs of the housing search for minorities and restrict their housing options.
People with disabilities
In a 2005 pilot study, Urban found that people with disabilities searching for rental housing in the Chicago area encountered significant levels of adverse treatment—even more than that experienced by African American or Hispanic renters in the same housing market. A 2015 report found that the same was true on a national scale. The study focused on people who are deaf and people who use wheelchairs. In both cases, the disabled testers experienced discriminatory treatment, receiving less information and being shown fewer units than hearing and ambulatory testers. In addition, landlords frequently denied requests for modifications to make rental units accessible.