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An experiment in New York City revealed that reminders about anti-discrimination housing laws was mildly effective in mitigating housing discrimination—but only in some cases.
Though civil rights laws passed in the 1960s officially made housing discrimination illegal, nobody believes that bias has been rooted out of the rental market. The National Fair Housing Alliance estimates that there are four million instances of housing discrimination each year as renters search for open apartments and meet with potential landlords. In their 2018 annual report, the group concluded that “the biggest obstacle to fair housing rights is the federal government’s failure to enforce the law vigorously.”
But while the Fair Housing Act gave some authority to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to enforce the law—power that housing advocates argue is too limited and too infrequently used—some local governments have also taken on targeted enforcement strategies. In New York City, the Commission on Human Rights tried a unique strategy to target racial discrimination by landlords by calling them to remind them of anti-discrimination laws, in the hopes that such a nudge would encourage them to follow the law.
In 2012, the city launched a randomized intervention with nearly 700 landlords, making targeted and personalized phone calls to those who had interacted with people hired by the CHR to pose as rental applicants. Three testers, one white, one Hispanic, and one black, met on the same day with landlords found through Craigslist apartment postings. Landlords were then randomly assigned to one of three treatment groups, two receiving different phone calls, and one group not interacting with the agency as a control.
“A lot of things had to go right for this design to work,” said Andrew Guess, a professor of politics and public affairs at Princeton University and co-author of a 2018 study published in the Journal of Politics about the experiment. “This is not a common strategy used by municipal governments. So part of the reason they brought in external researchers to monitor this is because it’s potentially a new idea for a broader anti-discrimination campaign.”
After landlords met with the three testers, some received a call from an employee of the CHR. In one treatment, the CHR stated that they were calling landlords “as part of an ongoing informational campaign to remind landlords and brokers of their obligations under fair housing law,” and provided the commission’s web page for more information. It did not mention any specific discriminatory practices that would be illegal. In a more aggressive approach, the script for the call was extended, and the city employee noted the potential penalties for violating the law. “It is illegal to discriminate against a person seeking housing due to their membership in a protected class. If you are found to have broken the law, you may be ordered to pay damages, provide reasonable accommodation, or incur civil penalties of up to $250,000,” the script said.
Researchers then monitored testers’ experiences and collected outcomes on whether they received a callback or an offer. The city found that the most forceful phone calls reduced levels of discrimination in receiving callbacks, but only for Hispanic applicants.
“We weren’t sure what to expect, and we’re cautious about the conclusions we drew,” Guess said. “But one thing that really stood out is the baseline discrimination against Hispanic applicants as compared to whites.”
All three testers were as similar as possible, varying only on the factor of race. The study did find significant discrimination in cases where no call was made. Hispanic applicants were 28% less likely to receive a callback and 49% less likely to receive an offer for an apartment than whites. Black applicants were 21% less likely to receive a call back and 24% less likely to receive an offer.
The most aggressive phone calls—mentioning the law and possible penalties—decreased net discrimination against Hispanics relating to callbacks by 6.6% and relating to offers by 2.1%. That message actually made conditions most favorable to Hispanics, compared to white and black applicants.
Calling landlords with a more mild message resulted in lower net discrimination against black and Hispanic applicants for call backs and offers, but at rates so low that the findings were statistically negligible.
“One big takeaway from this is that housing discrimination is a larger concern in New York than we knew,” Guess said. “We found some suggestive evidence that this type of intervention works, but the magnitude of the effect of each component is pretty modest. So looking forward, cities doing this should pack as much information into the message as they can to make the intervention as powerful as possible.”
Guess suggested that if other cities are interested in pursuing similar experiments, they could try them out in conjunction with broader public anti-discrimination awareness campaigns, like putting posters in subway stations. He also suggested that cities look to the political science and economics departments of nearby universities to find partners who can help them design such experiments. “Our hope is that other people are inspired to do their own research so we can build on our knowledge of what works and what doesn’t,” he said.
Emma Coleman is the assistant editor for Route Fifty.
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