Study Finds Housing Market Discrimination Contributes to Racial Disparities in Exposure to Pollutants

A working paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, “Housing Discrimination and Pollution Exposures in the United States,” finds evidence that discrimination in the housing market contributes to racial disparities in exposure to harmful pollutants. The authors find that minority renters with racialized names are less likely to hear back from rental properties in areas with low pollution exposure than are renters with white-sounding names. For properties in areas with high pollution, there is no significant difference in response rates by race. They also found evidence that response rates are influenced by gender and racial demographics already present in the area.

To test the impact of housing market discrimination on pollution exposure, the authors first identified all ZIP codes that surrounded a major source of pollution identified in the EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory. Of all ZIP codes that met this criterion, 19 were randomly selected for the study, and 2,918 listings from those ZIP codes were drawn. The listings were derived from one major online rental housing search platform. Using the results derived from EPA’s Risk-Screening Environmental Indicators model to determine ambient concentrations of pollutants, the listings were assigned low-, medium-, or high-exposure.

Utilizing prior literature on racial associations with certain names, the authors selected 18 first-last name pairs to create identities for the study. Six of the names had a high probability of association with African Americans, six were commonly identified as Hispanic/Latinx, and six were commonly identified as white. They created nine male and nine female names.

The authors then reached out to the individual listings using a randomly selected identity in each of the three racial groups. They coded any responses given by two criteria – whether a response was received within seven days of the inquiry, and whether the respondent indicated that the property was still available for rent. They also tested response rates to follow-up inquiries. The response rates for Black and Hispanic identities were compared relative to the rates for white identities to evaluate the presence of choice constraints in housing location for minority renters.

In total, renters with African American or Hispanic/Latinx names were 41% less likely to receive responses in low-pollution areas. Comparatively, there was no evidence of racial constraints in areas of high exposure to emissions. There were also gaps in relative response rates for Black and Hispanic identities. Black identities, with a relative response rate of 45%, were 55% less likely than white identities to receive a response in low-exposure areas. Hispanic/Latinx identities had better chances, with a relative response rate of 78%. Gender also had a significant impact on response rates. Compared to a 46% relative response rate for minority male identities, minority female identities had a relative response rate of 79%. The most severe discriminatory constraints were for Black males, who had a 28% relative response rate for low-exposure locations. When they conducted follow-up inquiries, the authors found stronger discriminatory responses—the relative response rates to African American and Hispanic/Latinx names were even lower.

Additionally, existing demographics informed response rates. The authors analyzed American Community Survey data and found that the strongest constraints on housing choice existed in the low-exposure locations that also had a low percentage of minority households present. The average relative response rate for these locations was 40%, compared to  72% for low-exposure areas with an above-median proportion of minority households. Rental prices were also found to be $278 more on average for low-exposure locations than for high-exposure locations.

The paper can be read at: