Documenting Discrimination in Local Rental Markets

Blog Post
May 1, 2013

The Equal Rights Center (ERC), a civil rights organization, has a new report out that documents the presence of fair housing violations in rental markets across the state of Virginia.The report identifies anti-immigration legislation and accompanying "hostility toward immigrant communities, particularly Latino communities" as possible contributing factors to this discrimination in the rental housing market. The findings are clear: Latino rental housing applicants received more adverse treatment than their white counterparts (who were of similar income, credit and occupational backgrounds). This pattern is alarming because discrimination in housing access can lead to disparity of opportunity and reinforce residential segregation over time. 

The researchers evaluated anti-Latino discrimination by conducting in-person civil rights tests of rental properties with matched pairs of trained white and Latino testers. The ERC sent over 100 pairs of testers to parts of Virginia that have experienced recent growth in their Latino communities and are proximal to majority white areas. (Check out page 15 for the details of how the testers were selected, portrayed to rental agents, and what control factors were in place.) In 58 of the total 106 tests conducted, the Latino applicant received at least one form of adverse treatment: being quoted a higher rental price for the property, not being told about a special or incentive, being told the apartment was available at a later date, or that fewer units were available. Some Latino testers were told a credit check was required, while the white tester was not.

In response to these findings, ERC's Executive Director stated: “Differential treatment based on national origin or perceived national origin is unlawful, yet this testing reveals that Latinos are often subject to unfair and sometimes illegal housing practices. While landlords may not actually say: ‘No Latinos,’ subtle forms of discrimination are another way of denying or discouraging individuals in their ability to live where they choose.

I bolded that last line because it is important to understand. When Latinos or other historically marginalized groups encounter bias in the rental housing market, they lose out on opportunities to live in neighborhoods they find desirable. As ERC's report notes, where we live matters: "The importance of equality in housing cannot be underestimated. Fair housing provides access to better education, public transportation and more employment opportunities." Unequal access to housing can thus translate into unequal access to opportunity. Subtle forms of discrimination add up over time and contribute to patterns of residential segregation by race (along with myriad other complicated factors).

This "subtlety" presents a challenge because housing discrimination today does not always look the way it did in the pre-Fair Housing Act era. The passage of the Fair Housing Act in 1968 was designed to prohibit discrimination in the "sale, rental, and financing of dwellings, and in other housing-related transactions, based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status, [and] disability." But the journey to truly equitable access to housing in the U.S. has been more like a slog than a straightforward path.

While we've made some progress toward fair housing access through legislation, the reality in our communities is that residential segregation by race is the norm in America.

In a 2011 analysis of Census data, William Frey of Brookings explains that average white, black and Hispanic Americans live in neighborhoods where their race is the plurality. Take a look at the chart below (and click to go straight to the report).

The data here also show that black and Latino children actually experience more racially segregated neighborhoods than adults of those groups do. For example, take a look at the average black child above (middle section, far right column): he or she lives in a neighborhood that is 27 percent white and 48 percent black, while average black adults live in areas that 38 percent white and 44 percent black. As Frey explains, "black and Hispanic households with children are more segregated from whites than their single and childless counterparts. White parents with children may be more likely to locate in select neighborhoods and communities, perhaps those with better schools, or superior public amenities related to childrearing."

Think about your neighborhood: do many of your neighbors look like you? The 2010 Census says that chances are yes: if you're an average white adult, 79 percent of your neighbors are also white. If you're an average Hispanic adult, 42 percent of your neighbors are also Hispanic.

There are many complex factors contributing to this phenomenon, but residential segregation by race is part of the status quo in the U.S. And because housing in America is so intimately tied up with access to economic opportunity (for both renters and homeowners), we will be less able to address other forms of inequality without addressing and ending violations of fair housing law.

The ERC report makes a valuable contribution to this effort by documenting the concrete manifestations of discrimination in local rental markets. In order to design and enforce effective fair housing policies, we have to know explicitly how discrimination plays out in practice. This report plainly demonstrates how information about rental housing opportunities is shared or withheld based on perceived national origin and race. While these experiences of discrimination are subtle or perhaps even imperceptible at the individual level, the aggregate of this trend is explicit: our communities remain profoundly segregated by race with people of color less able to access neighborhoods that function as engines of economic opportunity.