Large National Study Finds Widespread Housing Discrimination

A new working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), “Racial Discrimination and Housing Outcomes in the United States Rental Market,” finds African-American and Hispanic renters face widespread housing discrimination that impacts housing outcomes across the 50 largest metropolitan areas in the United States, though the findings vary both regionally and by metropolitan area. The authors, Peter Christensen, Christopher Timmins, and Ignacio Sarmiento-Barbieri, report that higher levels of housing discrimination, especially for African Americans, are correlated with greater residential segregation and disparities in economic mobility.  

To study discriminatory behavior, the authors created a bot to respond to online property listings from 8,476 property managers across the fifty largest metropolitan areas. The bot responded to listings using a selection of 18 different fictitious identities crafted to represent prospective African American, Hispanic, or white renters. This approach enabled the researchers to compare property manager response rates for different racial and ethnic identities. Response data for listings were then matched with data on the racial and ethnic identities of the renter households that subsequently occupied those units, which allowed the researchers to examine the relationship between discriminatory behavior and actual housing outcomes.

Inquiries from white renters received responses 60% of the time, while inquiries from African American and Hispanic renters had lower average response rates at 54.4% and 57.2%, respectively. Results varied by census region and metropolitan area. Compared to inquiries from white renters, response rates for inquiries from African American renters were 12% lower in the Midwest and Northeast, 7.9% lower in the West, and 7.6% lower in the South. Response rates were 8.1% lower in the Northeast, 5.2% lower in the South, 3.6% lower in the Midwest, and 2.6% lower in the West for Hispanics compared to whites. African Americans faced the greatest discrimination in Chicago, IL, Los Angeles, CA, and Louisville, KY, while Hispanics faced the greatest discrimination is Louisville, KY, Houston, TX, and Providence, RI.

Discrimination against renters of color correlated strongly with measures of neighborhood segregation and racial disparities in economic mobility. Households of color faced greater housing discrimination where residential segregation was more pronounced. African Americans were also more likely to experience housing discrimination in cities with larger disparities in income mobility between African Americans and whites, though this dynamic was not observed for Hispanics.

For listings where property managers did not respond to a hypothetical renter of color, there was a 17.3% decline in the likelihood a renter of color would ultimately occupy the unit. This effect was even greater for properties in census tracts where people of color had below median representation. Non-responses to renters of color for these listings corresponded to a 40.2% decline in the likelihood a renter of color would lease the unit. African American renters were also less likely to occupy a unit after non-response in census tracts where they had above median representation, indicating broad discrimination impacting housing outcomes for African American renters.

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