Much of what we know about housing discrimination against lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, and transgender people comes from surveys. But these personal experiences may only represent the most blatant forms of discrimination.
To more accurately document discrimination against same-sex couples and transgender homeseekers, we conducted studies in the Dallas–Fort Worth, Los Angeles, and Washington, DC, metro areas using paired testing, a powerful research tool that can capture discrimination in action.
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.
In paired testing, two testers pose as equally qualified homeseekers, differing only in a specific characteristic. For our pilot studies in the Dallas–Fort Worth and Los Angeles metros, we compared the experiences of, for example, a lesbian posing as part of a couple with a heterosexual woman posing as part of a couple to observe discrimination based on sexual orientation. Lesbian and gay testers and their heterosexual counterparts disclosed their sexual orientation to housing providers early by referencing a partner or spouse by a gender-specific name.
In the Washington, DC, metro area, we compared the experiences of transgender and cisgender homeseekers. This study was smaller than the sexual orientation pilot study and tested research methods to inform future work. We split these tests into two groups—in half the tests, transgender testers explicitly identified as transgender to providers; in the other half, testers did not explicitly disclose their gender status.
Housing providers discriminated against gay men and transgender people on some measures
After conducting 2,009 paired tests, we found that housing providers told gay men about one fewer available unit on every 4.2 tests than they told heterosexual men about, were slightly less likely to schedule an appointment with gay men, and quoted gay men average yearly rent costs that were $272 higher.
Housing providers were about equally likely to schedule an appointment with lesbians and with heterosexual women, told them about and showed them approximately the same number of rentals, and provided comparable information about rents and incentives. Differences across treatment measures of availability and inspections consistently disadvantaged lesbian testers, but the differences generally were small and not statistically significant.
Providers told transgender testers about fewer rentals than they told cisgender testers, regardless of the protocol used. Transgender testers who disclosed their gender status were less likely to be told about available rentals on average. They were, however, more likely to be allowed to view available units than transgender testers who did not disclose. It is unclear why.
This report represents an important step in developing and implementing tools to study discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender status, but the findings are partial. They only capture the early stage of the housing search process and not all differential treatment that a renter might face, such as during the application stage, when negotiating and signing the lease, and during occupancy. Also, testers posed as well-qualified renters rather than average or marginally qualified homeseekers, which might have influenced how providers treated them.
In addition, we conducted these studies in only three major metro areas. We do not know whether selecting different metros, more metros, or smaller metros would have led to different results. These and other limitations might account for the differences between our findings and findings from earlier studies. Our more modest findings might reflect differences in study scale, study sites, or a change in how housing providers interact with same-sex couples and transgender people. Findings from this pilot and exploratory study are not generalizable beyond the metro areas where we conducted tests.
Lessons for future research
This pilot study provides recommendations for future research and practice, including the following:
- Conduct research in a greater diversity and larger sample of sites.
- Analyze housing discrimination complaint data, which could reveal different types of discrimination.
- Explore ways to test directly for sexual orientation discrimination. In our study, testers signaled their sexual orientation by talking about their significant others using gendered names and pronouns.
- Conduct additional research into best practices for testing housing discrimination based on gender status.
- Explore whether people are treated differently based on gender identity and gender presentation