The blog of the Urban Institute
April 1, 2019

Fighting Housing Discrimination in 2019

April 1, 2019

Last week, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) announced charges against Facebook for violating the Fair Housing Act by “encouraging, enabling, and causing” housing discrimination through the company’s advertising platform, which limits who can view housing ads.

The charge asserts Facebook allowed advertisers to exclude people based on characteristics covered by the act: race, color, national origin, religion, familial status, sex, and disability.

HUD also claims that even when advertisers sought to reach broader audiences, Facebook combined data about demographic characteristics with information about users’ likes and interests to restrict information to homeseekers about housing options.

HUD’s charge comes on the heels of the announcement earlier last month that Facebook settled discrimination claims alleged by civil rights organizations over the same practices. As part of the settlement, Facebook agreed to no longer allow housing, employment, or credit ads to be targeted to users by age, gender, or zip codes.

Although Facebook may be the first tech company whose advertising practices have been challenged by HUD, similar practices by Twitter and Google have also been under review.  If these tech giants have effectively established an industry standard for advertising on their sites, limiting what information is accessible to whom, other tech firms are likely engaging in the same discriminatory practices.

Unbeknownst to them, individual homeseekers are denied critical information about housing choices across multiple online platforms.  

As Diane K. Levy and I wrote last year on the 50th anniversary of the Fair Housing Act, Facebook’s approach to housing ads illustrates how housing discrimination continues to evolve. Although difficult—if not impossible—for someone to detect, these discriminatory practices may have implications for where someone ultimately lives and their ability to access opportunities for employment, schools, and transportation.

Using paired testing to identify housing discrimination

Last month, before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies, I reflected on the current state of housing discrimination in the United States and the lessons of the past 10 years of paired-testing research completed by me and my colleagues.

Claudia L. Aranda, Senior Research Associate, Director of Field Operations at the Urban Institute testifies before the House Committee of Appropriations during the Stakeholder Perspectives: Fair Housing hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, on Feb. 27,Claudia Aranda, senior research associate and director of field operations at the Urban Institute testifies before the House Committee of Appropriations during the Stakeholder Perspectives: Fair Housing hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, on Feb. 27, 2019. (Ting Shen for The Urban Institute)

In a paired test, two people are assigned fictitious identities and qualifications. They are comparable in every way—except for the characteristic being tested, such as race or ethnicity.  When almost-identical homeseekers receive unequal treatment from landlords and real estate agents, paired testing essentially catches discrimination in the act.

Our research shows that the discrimination that persists today is harder to detect than it once was but barriers remain, increasing the time and cost of homeseekers’ searches and further limiting their choices that, in many metropolitan areas, are already constrained by the challenge of reaching landlords and finding available, affordable housing

Our work confirms that, for many Americans, the promise of the Fair Housing Act has not yet been realized, more than 50 years after its passage.

The most recent nationwide testing study on race and ethnicity showed that although the most blatant forms of housing discrimination may be less common, such as when a landlord refuses to meet with a potential renter, minority homeseekers still face discriminatory practices, even when they are well-qualified renters or homebuyers.

Landlords and real estate agents recommend and show fewer available apartments and homes to African Americans, Latinos, and Asian Americans, compared with equally qualified whites. The discrimination studies we’ve conducted on other groups, some explicitly protected by the Fair Housing Act, also experience differential treatment, including people with disabilities, LGBTQ people, and voucher holders.

And our studies may underestimate the level of discrimination against particular groups, because testers were well-qualified for the housing they sought and tests were done in response to publicly listed advertisements.

For housing that is not advertised, discrimination is likely more overt and more prevalent, as fair housing organizations may confirm in smaller-scale enforcement testing. And our studies capture discriminatory treatment occurring during the initial inquiry and information-gathering phase but not during the final stage of a rental or sales transaction.

Identifying housing discrimination in 2019

Paired testing is a powerful tool for detecting and documenting discrimination. But it does not fully explain or begin to address long-standing patterns of residential segregation and economic disparity. And as the ways people research and find housing change, so must our approaches to measuring discrimination and enforcing fair housing policies.

To overcome ongoing housing discrimination and the legacy of exclusionary land use and zoning policies, we need a multipronged strategy that includes the following:  

  • the vigorous enforcement of antidiscrimination protections and proactive testing to uncover otherwise undetected forms of differential treatment, including on social media and other online platforms
  • public education and outreach to residents about housing rights and opportunities and what to do if they suspect or witness unfair treatment in any venue
  • incentives to encourage affordable housing development and neighborhood reinvestment and to reach and serve historically underserved communities

Together, these efforts can help grow and sustain inclusive, high-opportunity communities that give residents access to good schools, jobs, transportation, and other important services.

As rental and sales markets continue to change, and as attitudes toward residential diversity continue to evolve, policymakers and fair housing practitioners will continue to need reliable evidence not only on the forms, incidence, and targets of discrimination but also on other factors that may contribute to segregation and disparities in neighborhoods, such as information gaps, local regulatory policies, stereotypes, and fear.

Future paired-testing studies could employ new methods to reach corners of the housing market, both online and offline, that are harder to access, uncovering discriminatory practices that may otherwise go undetected. 

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