The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
June 17, 2013

Catching housing discrimination in the act: The power of paired testing

June 17, 2013

Tuesday, Secretary Donovan announced the findings from HUD's latest paired-testing study of discrimination against minority homeseekers. The Urban Institute conducted the study, the third national paired-testing study we've done for HUD. Although the most blatant forms of housing discrimination have declined since the first national paired-testing study in 1977, we found that minority homeseekers are still told about and shown fewer homes and apartments than equally qualified whites.

There can be no question that the housing circumstances of whites and minorities differ substantially. Whites are more likely to own their homes, to occupy better quality homes and apartments, and to live in safer, more opportunity-rich neighborhoods. However, it’s far less obvious whether—or how much—these disparities result from current racial and ethnic discrimination in the housing market, because whites and minorities differ systematically in employment, income, assets, and debts.

Paired testing solves this problem by directly observing differential treatment of equally qualified homeseekers, essentially catching discrimination in the act.

How does paired testing work?

In a paired test, two people, one white and the other minority, pose as equally qualified homeseekers and inquire about available homes or apartments. Paired testing originated to support the enforcement of federal fair housing protections, and researchers have adapted the tool to systematically measure how often discrimination occurs across housing markets.

Applying this tool to produce rigorous national discrimination estimates is a daunting logistical undertaking. For the latest study, our team conducted over 8,000 paired tests in a nationally representative sample of 28 metropolitan areas. We partnered with local organizations, which hired testers to carry out the tests to our (very exacting) specifications.

In each test, two trained individuals—one white and the other black, Hispanic, or Asian—contacted a housing provider to inquire about a housing unit randomly selected from recently advertised homes and apartments. The two testers in each pair were matched on gender and age, and both presented themselves as equally and unambiguously well qualified to rent or buy the advertised unit. Each tester independently recorded the treatment he or she experienced, including information about all the homes or apartments recommended and shown. All the data came back to the Urban Institute, where our statistical experts crunched the numbers to systematically compare how minorities and whites were treated.

The stubborn persistence of discrimination

I’ve been working on paired-testing studies since 1989, and it’s encouraging to see that our country is making progress in battling housing discrimination. But I’m also disappointed by our latest findings, that 45 years after passage of the Fair Housing Act, minority renters and homebuyers still don’t get the information and access that they would if they were white.

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