“The results of this study are deeply troubling and further reinforce the immediate need to address the longstanding injustices Black people face in every aspect of their lives.”
Since the recent release of a damning Suffolk University Law School study indicating widespread discrimination against Black and low-income renters in Greater Boston, organizers of the research see particular relevance in the era of COVID-19 and the George Floyd protests.
Titled “Qualified Renters Need Not Apply,” the study helps people “understand what’s actually happening right now in our housing market,” said Suffolk Law professor William Berman, head of the Housing Discrimination Testing Program (HDTP), which conducted the research. “And of course it’s made particularly important because it is evidence of some of what people of color face right here in our community. … So it’s very much a part of the conversation about structural racism.”
The study reported an instance in which Black and low-income rental applicants were never informed of the availability of an extra apartment. On a separate occasion, a broker told an applicant that “a lot of people with Section 8 aren’t the greatest people.”
“Honestly, we were shocked at how high the rates of discrimination were,” Berman said.
“Qualified Renters Need Not Apply” joins other recent research efforts with similarly dismaying results. Berman cited a separate study that found that people of color are more likely to be evicted in Boston. Another study listed Boston as the third most intensely gentrified city in the US, behind only San Francisco and Denver.
Berman has been doing a lot of testing for housing discrimination since the HDTP opened in 2012. He has helped Suffolk Law students advocate for indigent people in housing matters going back two decades, and his interest in equality dates back even further. Growing up in a mostly white neighborhood in Bloomfield, Connecticut, he went to a mainly Black elementary school because of busing.
“My personal experience being in an integrated school system in some way informed my civil rights work,” Berman explained. “My personal experience seeing that people are people.” He added, “Part of what drives me in this work is that it is not fair that someone is prevented from where they want to live because they are in a protected class,” such as being Black or having a voucher.
Berman described his latest research project as “a controlled study with statistically sound methods so we could measure exactly what was going on in the community and have data from it.”
Conducted with help from the Analysis Group, a global economic analysis firm, and aided by a grant from the Boston Foundation, the study recruited 200 volunteer testers to pose as applicants for rental properties across Greater Boston from 2018 to 2019. Testers were divided into four categories: white market-rate renters, Black market-rate renters, white renters with Section 8 vouchers, and Black renters with Section 8 vouchers.
The goal was to have “four equally qualified individuals as similar as possible in all ways except race and voucher status,” Berman said.
Yet when four such individuals applied for the same rental property, the outcomes were dramatically different, even though Massachusetts fair housing law prohibits discrimination in housing based on such factors as race, color, or income.
Berman found that 80% of the time, white market-rate renters got to see properties they were looking to see, compared to 48% for Black market-rate renters. The percentages dipped further for Black renters with vouchers (18%) and white renters with vouchers (12%).
When Black applicants contacted housing providers, they used what Berman described as “names, based on research, that people associate with race,” such as Hakim and Tyrone for men, and Ebony and Tanisha for women. As Berman explained, housing providers “knew [the applicants] were Black before they even met them.” While 93% of white applicants got called back, only 82% of Black applicants got a response.
Applicants who did get to visit properties noted unequal treatment based on race and income—such as a white market-rate tester who was unexpectedly shown and offered an additional apartment.
“The housing provider said it was only for ‘a select group,’” Berman said, “and told the white market-rate tester they did not advertise that apartment because they would have to respond to everyone that would inquire.
“The housing provider did not tell any of the other testers about that apartment—the Black market-rate [tester] and the two with vouchers were not told, only the white market-rate. [Things] like that, we would see throughout testing.”
Testers also reported instances of housing providers treating Black applicants politely to their face before screening them out in favor of white applicants.
“If you were Black and if they let you walk around and said ‘see you later,’ and did not follow up, but if they made positive comments to a white tester and followed up, you would never know,” Berman explained. “It’s called ‘discrimination with a smile.’ … We need to have testing [for it].”
Berman also lamented what he called a “very, very dire level of discrimination against voucher holders.”
“If you have a voucher, you’re shut out,” Berman said. “If you want to see five properties and have a voucher, you have to call 50 housing providers, 50 different properties.”
Berman pointed out that it is illegal to “turn someone away because of a voucher. Our assumption is that [the housing providers] knew [this]. If they didn’t, it’s a very serious issue. They need education.”
And, Berman said, “A question we had was whether discrimination against people with vouchers—income discrimination—was a proxy for race discrimination, whether you would be treated differently if you were white with a voucher versus Black with a voucher.”
“We were surprised to find the answer was ‘no’ to that,” he said. “Apparently, the reason is because discrimination against someone with a voucher is so high, it’s higher whether you’re white or Black [with a voucher] than against market-rate tenants who are Black.”
Over the course of the study, testers looked for housing across nine cities—Arlington, Boston, Brookline, Chelsea, Malden, Medford, Newton, Quincy, and Watertown. Within Boston, they went to 11 neighborhoods—Allston, Brighton, Chestnut Hill, Dorchester, East Boston, Kenmore, Jamaica Plain, Mission Hill, the North End, South Boston, and West Roxbury, representing just under half of the 23 Boston neighborhoods.
Although the geographically diverse list includes some communities that are relatively far from Boston, it does not include others that are closer, such as Cambridge and Somerville. Asked about this, Jamie Langowski, assistant director of the HDTP, responded in an email, “All of the locations were randomly chosen based on what apartments were advertised as available within the limitations we set,” including accessibility by mass transit from Boston and compliance with BHA voucher payment standards.
BHA standards limited the locations based on monthly rent. They could not exceed $1,378 for a studio or $1,563 for a 1-bedroom. It’s a sharp contrast to the most recent median rent for Boston on Zillow.com: $2,950 as of this January.
Each week during the study, the Analysis Group would send the HDTP a randomly generated list of properties that were available.
“We would just start from the top of the list and ensure it was still advertised as available and then send testers,” Langowski explained. “I think that this shows one of the limitations that voucher [holders] face in that less is available to them due to the low rental amounts that they have to abide by.”
Since the study’s release, calls for action have been made on the state and municipal levels, and in the media.
“The results of this study are deeply troubling and further reinforce the immediate need to address the longstanding injustices Black people face in every aspect of their lives—including in their access to housing,” Attorney General Maura Healey said in a statement. “It’s important that people know their protections under the law and that my office is here for them. We will not tolerate bias or discrimination of any kind, and we are committed to ensuring fair and equal access to housing for everyone in our state.”
Rep. Joseph Kennedy III reached out to the HDTP following the study’s release, and Banker & Tradesman published an editorial calling for positive change by Labor Day.
“We are trying to connect with different government and advocacy agencies,” Berman said, adding that the HDTP has also spoken with the Massachusetts Association of Realtors, “the folks representing brokers who are interested in trying to reach some potential solutions around this.” The Mass Association of Realtors did not respond to an inquiry for this article.
“I do think there will be some change,” Berman said. “By the end of the summer, maybe, is a bit hopeful. This kind of change often takes a while. I think people are open to it now.” No matter what, he said, “this problem needs to be addressed.”
In the meantime, Berman is working on another pressing housing-related issue—evictions during COVID-19.
“I think we need additional kinds of policies put in place to support tenants, and also small homeowners who have tenants,” Berman said. “An eviction moratorium, a moratorium on foreclosure. I know there’s pending legislation here in Massachusetts that would address that, that would extend [it] for people, protection for people who are not able to make payments because of the COVID-19 crisis. If these kinds of policies are put in place, then we may be able to get through this with less pain.”
As for the pain of housing discrimination, Berman said, “I think people understand it’s a community-wide issue that we all suffer. Of course, the people discriminated against really suffer, but the entire city is hurt by this kind of thing.
“I do think it’s ripe for policy change, particularly in light of [the pandemic]. It’s also a focus of the racial inequality we have now. Individuals and groups are interested in working on it. We are going to be part of that.”
This article was produced in collaboration with the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism as part of its Pandemic Democracy Project.
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Rich Tenorio is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in international, national, regional and local media outlets. He is a graduate of Harvard College and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He is also a cartoonist.