OPINION: Closing the door on Americans' housing choices

September 20, 2005
Newspapers and TV commentaries around the country have been buzzing with alarm about skyrocketing housing prices. But for many Americans, spiraling home prices and rents aren't the only barriers to housing opportunity and choice. Discrimination - by landlords, real estate agents, and mortgage lenders - stands in the way of too many families searching for a place to live.
     Discrimination isn't as overt as it once was; often it is so subtle that victims don't even recognize it. Real estate agents no longer tell African Americans that they are unwelcome in a white subdivision. But an African-American couple visiting a real estate agent is shown fewer homes and less affluent neighborhoods than a comparable white couple. And landlords don't tell disabled applicants not to apply. But a deaf woman, using a TTY system to gather information about advertised rentals, can't get anybody to accept her calls or answer her questions.
     Compelling evidence that discrimination persists comes from a recent series of "paired-testing" studies by the Urban Institute. In a paired test, two people (one minority and one white, or one disabled and one non-disabled) pose as equally qualified homeseekers. Both call or visit a real estate agent or landlord to ask about a house or apartment advertised as available. Both make exactly the same request and record all the information and service they receive.
     Because the only difference between these two customers is their race or disability status, they should receive the same information and assistance. Systematic differences in treatment - telling the minority customer that an apartment is no longer available when the white customer is told he could move in next month, for example - provide direct evidence of discrimination. Paired testing catches housing providers in the act of discriminating.