The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
June 12, 2013

Housing discrimination today and the persistence of residential segregation

June 12, 2013

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Yesterday, my blog post summarized findings from the latest paired-testing study of discrimination against minority homeseekers. In a nutshell: the most blatant forms of housing discrimination have declined since the first national paired-testing study in 1977, but minority homeseekers are still told about and shown fewer homes and apartments than equally qualified whites.

For much of the twentieth century, discrimination by landlords and real estate agents blocked minorities from moving into white neighborhoods and produced high levels of residential segregation. Too often, blacks and other minorities were excluded from neighborhoods with high-quality housing, schools, and other public services. And lenders have been less willing to invest in predominantly minority communities or have offered predatory loans and loan terms that stripped wealth from minority homeowners.

Over the past three decades, black-white segregation has declined steadily (although it remains high in many metropolitan areas) and immigration has transformed the country’s population, bringing greater racial and ethnic diversity to the neighborhoods of both blacks and whites. Hispanics and Asians are considerably less segregated from whites than are blacks. And most whites live in more diverse neighborhoods today than they did three decades ago.

Consistent with this trend, racial and ethnic prejudice is generally waning among Americans, and attitudes toward residential diversity are more open today—especially among young people. Most adults know and approve of the fact that federal law prohibits housing discrimination on the basis of race and ethnicity. A declining share of the population expresses prejudice against blacks or distaste for black neighbors. And recent surveys show a big decline in the share of whites opposed to living in communities with black neighbors.

We should celebrate this progress, but we’ve still got a very long way to go. Prejudice has by no means disappeared and, as our latest paired-testing study documents, minorities still face significant barriers to housing search, even when they are well-qualified as renters or homebuyers. Levels of black-white segregation remain high in many metro areas, and Hispanic-white segregation may be on the rise. Today, even middle-class minority neighborhoods have lower house price appreciation, fewer neighborhood amenities, lower-performing schools, and higher crime than white neighborhoods with comparable income levels. Volumes of research document the high costs of racial and ethnic segregation—not just for individuals but for society as a whole.

The levels and forms of present-day housing discrimination can’t fully explain the stubborn persistence of residential segregation and neighborhood inequality. Policymakers and fair housing practitioners must look beyond present-day discrimination to other contributing factors—many of which reflect the legacy of past discrimination and legally enforced segregation.

Information gaps, stereotypes and fears, local regulatory policies, and disparities in purchasing power all work together to perpetuate segregation today, even though many Americans—minority and white—say they want to live in more diverse neighborhoods. Meaningful reductions in neighborhood segregation and inequality can only be achieved if we tackle all these causal forces at the same time.

The evidence argues for a multipronged strategy that includes vigorous enforcement of anti-discrimination protections along with education—about the availability and desirability of diverse neighborhoods; local regulatory reforms and affordable housing development—to open up exclusive communities and preserve affordable options in gentrifying neighborhoods; neighborhood reinvestment—to equalize the quality of services, resources, and amenities in minority neighborhoods; and new incentives—to encourage and nurture stable diversity.

All these elements are essential if we want to achieve the fundamental goals of free and fair housing choice and healthy, opportunity-rich neighborhoods.

Photo by Matt Johnson, Urban Institute

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