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How to Fight Housing Discrimination

An ugly truth plagues the American housing market: Racial discrimination against nonwhites persists, and established antidiscrimination laws seem unable to uproot it. A new study by Macartan Humphreys, Albert H. Fang, and Andrew M. Guess uncovers high levels of rental discrimination in New York City, especially against Hispanics, and reveals mixed messages about the effectiveness of government communication strategies.

The researchers partnered with the New York City municipal government to run a large-scale field experiment over 20 months, assessing the level of racial discrimination against black and Hispanic rental applicants. In contrast to previous reports of zero discrimination against minorities in receiving a callback, the results of this study are eye-opening: Hispanics are 28% less likely to receive a callback and 49% less likely to receive an offer for an apartment than whites. Black applicants are also subjected to less favorable treatment by landlords than whites.

Can the government effectively deter this discrimination? As the researchers point out, government strategy tends to either publicize antidiscrimination law or stress the potential penalties for violating it. The study also assessed the effectiveness of these preemptive approaches, finding suggestive evidence that government messaging can reduce discrimination against Hispanics, but not against blacks. In the absence of government intervention, there is strong evidence for rental discrimination based on race, which in turn drives racial housing inequality. As racial discrimination against nonwhites continues to blight the American rental landscape, this study highlights a number of meaningful paths for future research to identify exactly how housing inequality along race lines can be combated, as well as the conditions under which government appeals against discrimination are most effective.

The study was published in the Journal of Politics, Vol. 81, No. 1, October 16, 2018.

About the Authors

Macartan Humphreys is director of the research unit Institutions and Political Inequality at the WZB and a professor of Political Science at Columbia University.

Albert H. Fang is a postdoctoral associate at the Institution for Social and Policy Studies at Yale University.

Andrew M. Guess is an assistant professor of Politics and Public Affairs at Princeton University.

Macartan Humphreys was recently honored with the Society Needs Science Award of the Stifterverband for his work on developmental policy.