Interactives, stories, and collections that go beyond the data

Exposing Housing Discrimination

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, discrimination against homebuyers in minority neighborhoods seeking insurance quotes, and discrimination by mortgage lending institutions

Housing voucher holders

Housing Choice Vouchers are designed to help low-income families afford decent, safe homes and have the opportunity to move out of low-income neighborhoods. In theory, voucher holders can move anywhere they can find an affordable home. In practice, their housing choices are severely constrained and significantly dependent on landlords. This 2018 pilot study presents findings from the largest, most comprehensive test of discrimination against Housing Choice Voucher holders to date. Our findings show that landlords are not passive actors in the Housing Choice Voucher program. They have incredible power in deciding if voucher holders can use housing benefits and where voucher holders can live.

Same-sex couples and transgender people

This paired-testing study presents findings from the first systematic, in-person study of discrimination against same-sex couples and transgender homeseekers in the rental housing market. Our findings indicate that in the early stages of the rental search process, housing providers discriminate against gay men and transgender people on some treatment measures but treat lesbians and heterosexual women comparably. This 2017 pilot study represents an important step in developing and implementing tools to study discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender status, two categories not covered explicitly by the Fair Housing Act.

Families with children

This 2016 report provides results of a pilot paired-testing study of discrimination against families with children in the rental housing market. The study found no evidence of outright refusal to rent to families with children and few differences in treatment overall. In addition, the study found no differences by race in the likelihood of experiencing familial status discrimination. Families with children were steered toward larger units, however, which may increase costs and limit availability. Standards that limit occupancy to two people per bedroom may also affect the opportunities available to families with children if they prevent consideration of smaller units that the family might view as acceptably sized.

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.


Exposing Housing Discrimination: A Conversation with Marge Turner and Justin Carter


Exposing Housing Discrimination: A Conversation with Marge Turner and Justin Carter