05/12/2010 04:26 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Cyberdiscrimination in Dallas: Is Neil a More Desirable Tenant than Tyrone or Jorge?

Samantha Friedman and Gregory D. Squires

It helps to be white if you are trying to rent an apartment in Dallas. At least those housing providers who advertise rental units on Craigslist clearly prefer to rent to white rather than African American or Hispanic households.
According to real estate industry sources and a 2010 survey by the Pew Research Center, more than half of all homeseekers today utilize the internet in their search for housing with Craiglist being the primary search engine. Between January and May of 2009 we submitted responses to a representative sample of 726 housing providers who advertised rental units on Craigslist in the Dallas metropolitan area. Each provider received similar e-mail responses from three "testers;" one with a white sounding name (Neil Baker or Matthew O'Brien), one with an African American sounding name (Tyrone Jackson or Tremayne Robinson), and one with a Hispanic sounding name (Jorge Rodriguez or Pedro Gonzalesr). (We also tested 739 housing providers in Boston with similar results.)
The discrimination that was encountered was not the overt, explicit, door slamming type that was common a few decades ago. Though more subtle, it was clear. Initially most of the testers appeared to be treated similarly. In the Dallas area more than three-quarters of all testers received a response. But this was true for 82 percent or the white testers and less than 78 percent of the African Americans or Hispanics, a small yet statistically significant difference.
As we moved deeper into the search process the disparities grew. In the total sample whites were more likely to be told the unit was still available, receive more than one response from the provider, be advised to contact the property owner, and informed of additional units that were available. The most significant measure in our research was whether or not the tester was invited to inspect the advertised property. In the Dallas area almost 73 percent of whites were invited to inspect the unit compared to 66.5 percent of Hispanics and 62.7 percent of African Americans.
When comparing minority and white access to housing from the same housing provider or within the same "audit," the findings were more striking in the magnitude of the racial and ethnic disparities that emerged. Overall, in 5.5 percent of the audits whites were invited to inspect the unit but African Americans and Hispanics were not. Hispanics received an invitation in just 1.7 percent when neither whites nor African Americans were invited and African Americans were so favored in just 1.2 percent of the audits.
We also calculated an overall measure of whether an audit was white, black, or Hispanic favored. We considered our six measures of access to rental housing simultaneously - whether: 1) each auditor received a response; 2) or more than one response; if they were: 3) told the advertised unit was available; 4) invited to inspect the unit; 5) advised to contact the housing provider; and 6) informed of additional, available units. If the white tester was favored on one or more of the six measures but the black and Hispanic testers did not receive responses on any of these six measures, the audit was classified as white favored. Black- and Hispanic-favored audits were classified as such when the black and Hispanic testers were the only ones to receive responses, respectively. Using this conservative measure, whites were favored in 14.9 percent of the audits, Hispanics were favored in 9.2 percent, and African Americans were favored in 6.9 percent in Dallas.
There are reasons to believe our measures underestimated the true extent of discrimination in the electronic rental market. It is likely that the initial response from the providers in some cases was virtually an automated response that all inquiries received. It is probably the case that several providers did not pay much attention to the names of the people sending the e-mail inquiries and just responded with "form" responses. Most importantly, we did not follow up and actually make appointments to visit any units or make an offer to rent any of them. Given our findings that disparities grew as we moved through the process, it is likely that if we had taken the further steps of trying to arrange a visit or actually rent the unit, the disparate treatment would have been even greater.
Still, these findings indicate the troubling reality that the discrimination long found in housing made available in newspaper ads, through word of mouth by friends, and from real estate agents directly persists in the emerging electronic market more than 40 years after the Federal Fair Housing Act was passed. Princeton University sociologist Douglas Massey, co-author of the classic book American Apartheid, has suggested that discrimination has long been a moving target in the US and particularly in the nation's housing market. It appears such practices have migrated to housing that is advertised on line. These findings indicate that HUD, state and local fair housing agencies, and non-profit fair housing organizations need to expand their investigative tactics and pay much closer attention to Craigslist and other electronic search tools. Cyberspace is not race neutral. Apparently Neil is a more favored tenant than Tyrone or Jorge.

Samantha Friedman is an associate professor of sociology at the University at Albany, New York -
Gregory D. Squires is a professor of sociology and public policy and public administration at George Washington University -
These findings are drawn from the paper, "Cybersegregation in Dallas and Boston: Is Neil a More Desirable Tenant than Tyrone or Jorge?" that we presented in April at the annual conference of the Population Association of America in Dallas, Texas.

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