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Researchers expected ‘outrageously high’ discrimination against Black renters. What they found was worse than imagined

Researchers fault real estate professionals who illegally ghost, steer away qualified renters

In subtle and overt ways, Black renters experienced discrimination by real estate brokers and landlords in 71 percent of the cases tested in the study.
In subtle and overt ways, Black renters experienced discrimination by real estate brokers and landlords in 71 percent of the cases tested in the study.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

An undercover investigation released Wednesday found that Black people posing as prospective tenants in Greater Boston were shown fewer apartments than whites and offered fewer incentives to rent, and that real estate agents cut off contact when the renters gave Black-sounding names like Lakisha, Tyrone, or Kareem.

The white “testers” in the study posing as would-be renters, on the other hand, easily secured tours of properties, were wooed with discounts, and got preferred treatment — such as the opportunity to view additional units — when looking at apartments.

In subtle and overt ways, Black renters experienced discrimination by real estate brokers and landlords in 71 percent of the cases tested in the study by Suffolk University Law School, titled “Qualified Renters Need Not Apply: Race and Voucher Discrimination in the Metro Boston Housing Market.”

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Researchers expected “outrageously high” discrimination in Boston, said Catherine LaRaia, director of investigations and outreach at the law school’s Housing Discrimination Testing Program, which conducted the study. But they were flabbergasted, she said, by what they uncovered.

“This was a shocking result for us, and we do this work every day,‘' she said.

People looking for apartments with Section 8 housing vouchers also experienced extreme discrimination. Regardless of race, they were routinely blocked, ignored, or turned away by an agent, the study found. It is unlawful in Massachusetts to deny someone housing on the basis of race or voucher status, among other protected classes.

The law school’s Housing Discrimination Testing Program — which aims to eliminate illegal housing discrimination through testing, enforcement, education and research — undertook the study with Analysis Group, an international economics consulting firm. The study was funded by The Boston Foundation and the Racial Justice Fund. The researchers said they hope their data will help shape public policy and end discrimination in the housing market.

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“I want people to understand that this kind of discrimination is real, and it’s happening now in our community — and something needs to be done about it,” said William Berman, director of The Housing Discrimination Testing Program, who led the study.

Greg Vasil, chief executive of Greater Boston Real Estate Board, said his organization rejects all discrimination, adding that when it comes to fair housing and preservation of the fair housing laws in the Commonwealth, “we absolutely stand firm: We will not tolerate or condone” people who violate those laws.

“We work pretty hard to educate people to make sure they understand the law,‘' he said. “If some of these people are members, that’s something that we . . . just can’t stand for. That’s wrong.”

Researchers at the Testing Program, which has conducted 700 undercover tests on housing discrimination over the years, set out to determine whether someone’s race or housing voucher status prevented them from getting appointments to see properties, get a rental application, and learn about financial incentives properties offer. They also tested how levels of service differed based on race or voucher.

They selected, trained, and deployed 200 participants or “testers” to conduct 50 tests at properties across Greater Boston from August 2018 to July 2019. Four testers went to each site: One Black person and one white person would each separately tell an agent, property manager, or landlord that they could pay market rate rent. Another pair of Black and white testers, approaching the broker or landlord separately, would say they had a voucher. All of the testers had jobs and could afford the units they were seeking. They were similar in many other ways, too, including their age, income level, credit score, and family status.

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The researchers assigned the undercover testers “race-associated” names such as Aisha, Hakim, and Darnell for Black testers and Jill, Allison, and Brad for whites. (Researchers said they limited the race of the participants to only Black and white to identify the effect of race from housing vouchers more clearly. They said further research is required to understand the extent of discrimination for other people of color.)

All testers were asked to make an appointment for a tour of 50 randomly selected apartments in Greater Boston. The properties included those that accepted vouchers from the Boston Housing Authority.

The participants were unaware of the role they played in the study and were asked to clandestinely document their experiences in writing, which were then analyzed and assessed by the researchers.

The results indicate that whites paying market rent were able to arrange to view apartments 80 percent of the time. Similarly situated Black market-rate testers seeking to view the same apartments were able to visit the property only 48 percent of the time, the study said.

Whites were frequently informed about other apartments available, offered more incentives such as free parking and rent discounts, and were given more positive feedback about a unit or property they were seeking, the study says.

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Meanwhile, Black people were less likely to get appointments for site visits, an application, or financial incentives. Unlike whites, they were often told negative things about the units they were seeking.

When agents dealt with Black testers, the incidence of “ghosting” — or no follow-up calls from the agent — was much higher. White testers continued to hear back from agents 92 percent of the time. Black testers heard back only 62 percent of the time, Suffolk officials said.

For voucher holders, unfair treatment was standard. Ninety percent faced discriminatory behavior from a rental agent. They, too, were “ghosted,‘' unable to get a rental application or appointments to tour an apartment.

In one incident, a Black male voucher holder said a conversation he was having with a real estate broker abruptly ended when he introduced himself as “Kareem.”

The agent promised to call the next day before hanging up, but never followed through or responded to subsequent e-mail from the tester.

A Black market-rate participant left three voicemails introducing himself as “Tremayne” but was not able to speak with the housing provider. A white male tester who went by “Brad” got a much warmer reception; he was able to make an appointment to tour the unit, and though the agent did not attend, he called “Brad” back offering to reschedule.

In another case, an agent told a white potential renter that a unit was being offered to a “select group,” adding that “they don’t advertise that apartment, because then they would have to respond to everyone who inquires.”

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The agent also said the owner was looking for “people with quiet lifestyles who work — not CEOs necessarily but people with good jobs in that apartment,‘' Berman said.

“The opportunity to view that apartment was offered only to the white tester,‘' Berman added.

The researchers said real estate brokers play a significant role in contributing to discrimination in the rental housing market. More than 180 of the 200 participants had contact exclusively with real estate brokers, agents, or someone from a property management company; only a few had direct contact with landlords. An overwhelming majority of the testers dealt with a broker at some point in the process of inquiring about the property, the researchers said.

“[The] real estate professionals are part of the problem,‘' said Berman, the Suffolk law professor. “And they should be part of the solution. . . . People are required to take vouchers, and they cannot treat someone different because they have a voucher.”

The researchers recommended increased penalties and training for real estate professionals and prohibiting them from charging broker’s fees; strengthening anti-discrimination laws and fair housing enforcement and education; increasing resources for testing; and improving and streamlining the system for using vouchers.

Read the full study:




Meghan E. Irons can be reached at meghan.irons@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @meghanirons.