The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
August 14, 2015

Why it’s so challenging to measure housing discrimination against persons in wheelchairs

August 14, 2015

What’s it like to look for a home when you have a disability? What kind of treatment might you expect?

One housing provider told a prospective renter who used a wheelchair, “Oh, you’re disabled…you don’t work.” In another instance, a prospective renter was told over the telephone that an apartment building was accessible.  But when she arrived to meet the agent, she could not enter the building in her wheelchair—there were several steps between the sidewalk and the entrance. The agent explained she thought the tester would be able to get out of the wheelchair to climb the steps and enter the building.

These experiences were among those documented by participants of the Housing Discrimination Study-Disabilities (HDS-Disabilities), the first national study of housing discrimination against people who use a wheelchair.

How we measured housing discrimination

In a paired test examining differential treatment against persons in wheelchairs, two testers—one who uses a wheelchair and the other who is ambulatory—are matched on age, gender, race and ethnicity, assigned income, and marital status. Both individuals are trained to make the same inquiries, express the same needs and preferences, and independently record details about their interaction with a housing provider.

Since the only real difference between the two testers is their disability status, both should receive the same information and level of assistance. But, as we found, this isn’t always the case: housing providers are less likely to make an appointment with homeseekers who use wheelchairs, less likely to tell people who use wheelchairs about available apartments, and less likely to show them any units.

The challenges of measuring disability discrimination

Since 2011, the Urban Institute has supervised the completion of over 13,000 rental and sales paired tests for studies on race/ethnicity, familial status, sexual orientation, and gender identity. But given the inherent complexities of testing for disability discrimination, the data collection for HDS-Disabilities was the most challenging of any recent testing study we’ve done. Here’s why:

  • Wheelchair users are more conspicuous than other homeseekers. If the housing industry realizes that it’s being tested for discrimination, agents might change their behavior or try to identify testers. Our testers were trained to anticipate agents’ questions, and in areas with fewer properties available for testing, our local partners used a waiting period between site visits and reported any possible detection concerns to the project team at Urban.
  • Transportation isn’t always reliable or accessible for wheelchair users. Across the study’s 30 metropolitan areas, there were tremendous differences in the availability, cost, and accessibility of transportation options. In many sites, public paratransit services were too unreliable to be utilized. Even in cities with wheelchair accessible transportation options, many services required testers to allocate additional transit time to ensure they would arrive on time for appointments—if testers arrived too early or too late, differential treatment might be attributed to the timeliness of the tester rather than housing provider behavior.
  • Many wheelchair users could only conduct a small number of tests. Since many testers with disabilities received financial assistance through public programs, there was a limit to the amount of additional income they could earn without having their benefits reduced; as a result, many testers had a maximum number of tests they could conduct before having to leave the study. Additionally, many of the testers who used wheelchairs had ongoing health care needs, which affected both their availability and their capacity to conduct site visits.  A number of them left the project because they became seriously ill.

Why identifying disability discrimination matters

However challenging it is to successfully conduct testing for disability discrimination, it is essential that practitioners, including private fair housing organizations and other enforcement organizations, overcome the logistical and financial hurdles to uncover housing provider patterns and practices in cities and regions across the country. 

By producing evidence of discriminatory practices that might otherwise go undetected, we can help reveal the magnitude of barriers that limit housing choice for persons with disabilities.

In this photo taken Friday, March 1, 2013, Jennifer Lortie begin her two-hour commute home after work, waiting for a bus in Willimantic, Conn. Photo by Jessica Hill/AP

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