Boston city councilors are looking to beef up how the city cracks down on housing discrimination after a recent Suffolk University Law School study found that real estate agents and landlords treated testers posing as prospective Black renters and voucher holders differently.
On the table are two similar hearing orders both introduced Wednesday. One seeks a discussion on how the federal government’s Housing Choice Voucher, or Section 8, program operates and what can be done to prevent discrimination against enrollees.
The other proposal looks for Boston to create its own fair housing testing program, one that proactively investigates discrimination perpetuated by landlords and brokers.
“The fact is we as a city need to be ever-vigilant every single time something happens that prevents Bostonians from being able to stay in Boston,” Councilor Lydia Edwards, a vocal housing advocate on the council who is a co-sponsor of both proposals. “That’s a concern for us, and especially when it comes to discrimination.”
In “Qualified Renters Need Not Apply: Race and Voucher Discrimination in the Metro Boston Housing Market,” Suffolk University Law School found Black renters faced discrimination in 71 percent of the cases tested, while voucher-holder testers — regardless of race — were discriminated against 86 percent of the time.
The investigation involved 200 individual testers contacting the housing providers of 50 one-bedroom and studio apartments within Greater Boston randomly selected between August 2018 and July 2019.
“The researchers limited the scope of the investigation of race in this study to Black and white testers to identify the effect of race from housing vouchers more cleanly,” the study says. “Further research is required to understand the extent of discrimination that Latinx, Asian, and other people of color may also face in the rental housing market when using vouchers.”
The study says testers were “significantly more likely” to have their contact suddenly end with a housing provider if they had a housing voucher: 42 percent of voucher holders were “ghosted” compared with 10 percent of testers without them.
White market-rate testers were also given more opportunities to visit properties in person after an initial interaction with a provider compared with their Black counterparts, or 80 percent compared with 48 percent, respectively, according to the study. At properties with multiple available units, white and market-rate testers were more frequently told about several options compared with Black and voucher-holder testers.
White individuals were also given more incentives — 33 percent of the time for those who were market-rate testers and 40 percent for voucher holders — over Black testers, who were offered incentives 8 percent of the time without a voucher and 11 percent when presenting one.
In some cases, testers were blatantly discriminated against, the study says.
In one, testers were “ghosted” after offering names like “Kareem” and “Tremayne,” but another, who used the name “Brad” as a market-rate tester, was able to schedule an appointment to tour the unit, according to the study. A white voucher-holding tester, meanwhile, was told he would receive a call back but never did.
Councilor Liz Breadon, who co-sponsored the order on the Section 8 program, called the numbers “incredibly discouraging” and recalled failed attempts at trying to help a voucher-holding family in her Allston-Brighton district find a place to live.
“It was absolutely impossible,” she said. “We explored every opportunity and it just wasn’t happening. We could not find a landlord who would take a Section 8 voucher family in this neighborhood at the time we were looking.”
Council President Kim Janey said she’s personally experienced the challenges of finding housing with a voucher.
“I saw first hand how folks are treated out there in the real estate world,” said Janey, who has served as a tester in past investigations. “My very first apartment was a Section 8 apartment, and I know what it was like as a young, single mom trying to find a place to live with me and my daughter.”
This is why today I introduced with Councilors @LydiaMEdwards and @KenzieBok an order for a hearing to propose a municipal fair housing testing program to measure, document, and end housing discrimination in the City of Boston. (2/2) pic.twitter.com/Hx81X3tYxt
— Matt O'Malley (@MattOMalley) July 8, 2020
According to Councilor Matt O’Malley, a co-sponsor of the initiative to create a city-led testing program, Boston currently maintains a partnership between the Office of Fair Housing & Equity and Suffolk University to do similar “secret shopper method”-style testing when it is made aware of specific complaints.
“However, the way the program is currently constituted requires those seeking housing to go out of their way to submit claims often while still searching for a place to live,” O’Malley said. “Some would argue it is a lot more reactive as opposed to proactive.”
That program is also largely reliant on funds from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, whose own budgets can sway between presidential administrations, he said.
“So we must fund this testing as a city to allow everyone a chance at fair housing despite their race or source of income,” O’Malley said. “We need to focus on testing, enforcement, education, and research.”
And thanks to @KenzieBok for partnership as well! With this program and fair housing amendment we are attacking patterns of discrimination in housing from the beginning (planning) to the end (selling or renting). #bospoli #mapoli
— Lydia Edwards (@LydiaMEdwards) July 8, 2020
The councilor envisions working with housing nonprofits, activists, and schools to maintain the initiative, which would be an avenue to run the operation “at very little or no cost to the taxpayer,” O’Malley said.
The councilors behind both of the proposals say they see opportunity for collaboration.
Councilor Annissa Essaibi-George, a co-sponsor of the Section 8 hearing order, said the city has to focus on answering questions on how it can enforce housing discrimination laws.
“Do we need to update our codes? And are there things we can do on our end to streamline the process so landlords aren’t stuck in the red tape?” she asked.
In a separate endeavor, city leaders anticipate filing a zoning amendment this year that’s focused on access to fair housing and that will require developers to take additional steps to fighting displacement and to promote inclusion in neighborhoods.
Mayor Martin J. Walsh, who is standing behind the effort after Edwards filed an amendment on the topic last year, said in June that city agencies are working to create a tool that will assess project proposals and identify and address within them the risk of resident displacement and “foster access for historically excluded communities.”
If passed, the law would make Boston the first city in the nation with fair housing requirements inscribed into its zoning code.
“That amendment looks at housing from the planning perspective before the buildings are built, and this is actually dealing with discrimination and oppression on part of the real estate agent when things are built and we’re trying to sell them,” Edwards said of the proposed testing program. “We’re literally dealing with the bookends of the industry.”
On Friday, Walsh and the Boston Housing Authority announced that the agency is extending its moratorium on nonessential evictions for BHA residents through the end of 2020 in light of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
The decision, which the BHA initiated in March, halts all eviction proceedings except those that stem from criminal activity or are based out of health and safety concerns.