The real housing discrimination today is institutional, not personal

The unfinished business of dismantling the institutional racism built into zoning

Overt, personal discrimination in housing is just the tip of the iceberg, the great and devastating mass of discrimination is below the surface, in the form of apartment bans and minimum lot sizes.

Is there anything more ugly, hurtful and personal than saying to someone, I don’t want you to live here because of your race, ethnicity, religious beliefs, or gender identity?  Thanks to Federal and State fair housing laws, it’s now the case that this kind of overt discrimination is illegal.  And it is unquestionably right that proscribe and punish this kind of fundamentally anti-social behavior.

But the face of discrimination has changed in the five decades since the Fair Housing Act was adopted.  There continue to be, to be sure, horrendous and insulting instances of overt housing discrimination.  But today the real housing discrimination is far more subtle and pervasive than a “need not apply” sign, or even a disingenuous “the apartment’s already been rented” claim.

Rome, GA, 1943. (Esther Bubley, photographer. “A sign at the Greyhound bus station.” Collection of the Library of Congress)

The most pernicious forms of discrimination are those that are deeply embedded in our policies, and that are executed by impersonal laws and constrained markets, not sneering racists.

Patterns of overt housing discrimination.

One of the most reliable and widely practiced means of detecting discrimination and enforcing fair housing laws is “testing”–sending otherwise identical applications, with varying racial or ethnic backgrounds, to apply for the same home or apartment, and observing whether they are treated similarly, or not. Likewise, state and federal agencies also receive and tabulate complains of discrimination from those who feel they’ve been unfairly denied access to housing.

A recent study of the geographic pattern of housing discrimination in Detroit—Residential Racial and Socioeconomic Segregation as Predictors of Housing Discrimination in Detroit Metropolitan Area—looked at several decades of data on fair housing complaints, with the objective of observing  where discriminatory behavior seemed to be most prevalent.

As an aside, it’s rare in an academic paper that you find an author reporting data that clearly falsifies their priors.  Like clockwork, most published papers seem to confirm, or at worst refine, the author’s pre-existing theses about the subject at hand.  What makes this study from Detroit remarkable, in part, is that the authors find that their previous hypothesis was exactly wrong.

The authors started out with the idea that housing discrimination, particularly against black applicants, would be more common in predominantly white neighborhoods.  On its face, that makes sense:  racial tensions and discrimination ought to occur more often when prospective renters or buyers are from a different race or ethnicity than is predominant in a neighborhood.  The author’s of this study were surprising to find that in the Detroit area, reported instances of housing discrimination are lower in white communities, higher income neighborhoods, and in places with more expensive housing.

Detroit is a logical place to study discrimination; it is one of the two or three most segregated metro areas in the country. The city of Detroit and surrounding Wayne County are disproportionately Black, suburban Macomb and outlying cities are disproportionately white.

One of the historic reasons for segregation in the US is housing discrimination:  landlords, real estate agents, and sellers refused to sell or rent housing to Black families. (More than 90 percent of the complaints in the study involved discrimination on the basis of race).  The authors relate the long literature on housing discrimination, and advance a couple of theories, involving a distaste on the part of White families for having Black neighbors, and a desire of landlords and real estate agents to curry favor (and business) from these racist households, and notions that discrimination is somehow more profitable for sellers and landlords (something that economists tend to dispute).

The author’s hypothesize that because of the roots of discrimination are based on white racism, that the incidence of housing discrimination ought to be greater in Whiter, more expensive, and higher income communities.  Surprisingly, they find that just the opposite is true:  reported housing discrimination complaints are proportionately much more common in Detroit area neighborhoods that have a higher Black population, more affordable housing and more modest incomes.

Contrary to our hypotheses, findings reported here suggest that housing discrimination incidents in the DMA [Detroit Metropolitan Area] were lower in neighborhoods with greater proportions of NHW[non-Hispanic whites], homeowners, and higher median household incomes. We discuss the potential for housing discrimination to perpetuate segregation by maintaining racialized residents in certain neighborhoods. Our findings suggest that housing discrimination is more likely to occur in neighborhoods with higher percentage of NHB [non-Hispanic Black] residents, more renters, and lower median household incomes

The authors ruminate that perhaps their seemingly counter-intuitive finding is a product of under-reporting of discrimination in white neighborhoods, but as with assertions of widespread voter fraud in the last presidential election, there’s no evidence that’s the case.

The authors largely overlook a simpler and more obvious explanation:  Private discrimination is actually unnecessary in these wealthier, predominantly white neighborhoods because its built into the zoning codes.  A combination of large lot zoning and apartment bans in suburbs mean that most people of color don’t have the means to afford housing in white, higher income and higher valued neighborhoods.  Discrimination is effective achieved, to paraphrase Richard Rothstein, “by color of law”—freeing homeowners, landlords and sellers in these neighborhoods from the messy and distasteful business of having to personally engage in discrimination.  Prospective tenants and homebuyers are excluded by high home values and rents.

There’s a further point here, as well:  Housing discrimination as enforced through the zoning code is actually more about class than it is about race.  By themselves, high rents and high home values don’t exclude higher income Black households from these more affluent and predominantly white neighborhoods.  And the trend that we’ve seen in the past several decades is that higher income black households have become increasingly suburbanized and integrated.  Patrick Sharkey finds

. . . black middle and upper classes have transitioned out of central-city, primarily black neighborhoods into a more diverse group of racially mixed residential settings that are increasingly located in suburban areas.

The problems of segregation for low income people of color has actually been accentuated by this process of income polarization.  As David Rusk has shown, income polarization has increased sharply for the nation’s black population.  In the heyday of segregation, high income and low income black families tended to live in the same neighborhoods, and in the aggregate, Blacks were less segregated by income than whites.  Today, as high income black households have increasingly suburbanized, Blacks are vastly more segregated by income that Whites.  That’s exactly what’s happened in the Detroit metro, as Rusk’s analysis shows.

It’s probably more the case today that housing discrimination is driven by classism even more than racism; suburban homeowners are probably more alarmed by affordable housing than they are by a Black family moving in next door. Half a century ago, discrimination was more overt and personal; today its accomplished through land use regulations and housing prices that make sure that those of limited means, who are disproportionately people of color, simply can’t apply.

Addressing institutionalized housing discrimination

Today the more common and persistent source of housing discrimination isn’t the egregious actions of racist real estate agents or landlords, it’s the largely unquestioned and pervasive use of local land use powers to bake income discrimination into the legal fabric defining the housing market.

Problems are so much simpler when they have an identifiable villain and victim, and a clearcut transgression.  A good drama demands it.  And the morality and personal impact of discrimination is so much more obvious when we can talk about how one person, by a single decision, mistreats another person.  This happens, and is egregious and wrong, and under the Fair Housing Act, illegal.

It’s easier and more dramatic to visualize discrimination as being the product of the way one person treats another person; the way a landlord or a real estate agent steers prospective applicants to noe neighborhood rather than another based on their race, or asks for a higher rent than advertised or tells a prospective applicant that the homes already been rented or sold.  But the truth is that these clumsy, obvious and personally offensive kinds of discrimination are at best, the tip of the iceberg of real housing discrimination in the US.

The truly sophisticated form of discrimination is arranging the rules of the game to assure that nothing as messy and emotional as face-to-face dissembling is required.  You simply make sure that applicants are dissuaded or precluded from even looking for housing in your community.  If your suburb doesn’t allow apartments, and mandates only large-lot single family homes, you don’t need practice case-by-case personal discrimination, because no renters will actually appear.

But today, it is far from the most common kind of housing discrimination Americans experience.  Instead, the big problem of housing discrimination is baked into the legal framework that defines the entire real estate market.

If we only look for those instances of personal and direct discrimination, we’ll miss the larger forms of discrimination that are literally encoded into our land use system. In an important sense, the Fair Housing laws need to be made to apply to the municipalities that wield zoning power to practice this kind of discrimination, and also to the State legislatures who delegate the unfettered use of these powers. And that is the unfinished business of dismantling the institutional racism that still shapes access to housing in the United States.

Roshanak Mehdipanah, Kiana Bess, Steve Tomkowiak, Audrey Richardson, Carmen Stokes, Denise White Perkins, Suzanne Cleage, Barbara A. Israel, and Amy J. Schulz, “Residential Racial and Socioeconomic Segregation as Predictors of Housing Discrimination in Detroit Metropolitan Area,” Sustainability (2020), 12, 10429; doi:10.3390/su122410429