Racial Stereotypes Pervade Tenant Screening Processes

An article in American Sociological Review, Racial Discrimination in Housing: How Landlords Use Algorithms and Home Visits to Screen Tenants,” explores how racial discrimination affects landlord screening practices, even in rental markets with little racial diversity. In interviews with and observations of 157 landlords in lower-cost markets, the authors found that renters who wanted to establish they would be “good tenants” often needed to present themselves as exceptions to racial and ethnic stereotypes.

The authors conducted interviews with 157 landlords and property managers in Baltimore, Cleveland, Dallas, and Washington, DC. The researchers asked landlords to describe the history of their businesses and their screening processes. They did not ask directly about discriminatory practices. The researchers also observed a subset of landlords as they interacted with prospective tenants. Approximately one third of the landlords and property managers interviewed were Black, and one third were white.

Larger and more professionalized landlords were more likely to report using formal screening mechanisms, such as third-party algorithms, which are meant to be race-blind. These landlords were less likely to indicate flexibility or to make exceptions for tenants. Screening algorithms account for legally observable traits such as income, credit score, criminal background, and eviction history, though the authors note that these traits are often highly correlated with race. Some landlords intentionally used criteria as discriminatory proxies. For instance, in cities with source-of-income protection laws, some landlords used credit checks to avoid accepting housing vouchers.

Small-scale landlords were less likely to have access to formal screening mechanisms, and many indicated a preference for more informal methods like interviewing tenants or making home visits. In lower-cost markets, income and credit history may not differentiate potential applicants, so landlords were apt to introduce other criteria they thought would predict reliable rent payment, such as cleanliness, well-behaved children, polite language, marital status or their assessment of the renter’s partner, and type of employment. The authors argue that in many cases, such criteria rely on anti-Black narratives of a “culture of poverty,” and the onus is on applicants to show they are exceptions to racial stereotypes.

Forty-one percent of landlords who owned one to five units indicated they relied on “gut feelings” or intuitive judgments to differentiate renters, and the authors identify ways in which those judgments are affected by racial and gender stereotypes. One landlord who rented mostly to people of color labeled the applicants he rejected with racial slurs, differentiating them from the applicants he accepted, indicating how racist expectations affect screening even without strict racial preferences.

Nearly a quarter of landlords interviewed in Baltimore and Cleveland conducted home visits of prospective tenants’ living spaces as part of routine screening practices. For some, applicants who refused home visits were automatically denied. By contrast, other applicants deemed trustworthy were spared this inspection. Landlords explained this practice was needed to determine whether applicants were lying about household size and composition and whether they would maintain a rental home. Approximately 80% of Baltimore landlords who conducted home visits referred to “professional tenants,” who they believe bounce from landlord to landlord causing damage and not paying bills.

The paper is available at: https://bit.ly/3ASUAgs