Fighting discrimination in online housing ads

The Department of Housing and Urban Development and the ACLU are going after discriminatory online housing listings:

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development filed charges against social media giant Facebook on Thursday, alleging that its advertising platform violates the Fair Housing Act by allowing lenders and realtors to target Facebook users on the basis of race, gender, religion, familial status, disability, and national origin.

“Facebook is discriminating against people based upon who they are and where they live,” said HUD Secretary Ben Carson in a statement. “Using a computer to limit a person’s housing choices can be just as discriminatory as slamming a door in someone’s face.”

According to Axios, HUD and Facebook were close to a settlement. Citing anonymous sources, the Axios report says the decision to file charges could be motivated by a desire to appear on the offensive on housing discrimination prior to Carson’s meetings with lawmakers on Capitol Hill next week.

The charges are somewhat surprising as Facebook just settled five similar cases with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) last week. Under the settlement, the company agreed to create a separate advertising portal for real estate listings where advertisers’ options for targeting are limited. Facebook also settled a housing discrimination case with the state of Washington last summer.

The features that make online advertising so attractive – the ability to target particular consumers rather than addressing larger populations – do not work so well in the real estate field where housing is supposed to be available to all.

This reminds me of the conclusion of American Apartheid where the sociologists suggest the necessary rules are in place to combat housing issues but the political will is lacking. If the online realm is now indeed where a lot of housing is rented or sold, then discrimination in online listings needs to be addressed when it does occur.

Add these online occurrences to the ongoing findings of audit tests suggesting differential treatment and there is likely plenty of housing discrimination still to battle. While the 1968 Housing Act banned discrimination on the basis of “refusal to sell or rent a dwelling to any person because of his race, color, religion, or national origin,” many American communities – including the suburbs on the basis of race and class – are what they are today because of exclusion.

Megyn Kelley suggests HUD wants to diversify McMansion neighborhoods

In commentary over new HUD plans to switch to subsidies by zip code rather than by what renters can pay,

KELLY: This is being described as something that President Obama has had in the works for years, but has only now found the guts to actually put out there as a Housing and Urban Development proposed final rule because his term is almost done and this is the time to do it. The last thing on the list? Change the neighborhoods.

(….)

KELLY: They don’t want, quote, “unequal neighborhoods.” Unequal neighborhoods. It – they think too many cities are too white, too privileged with too big McMansions, too big McMansions and they – they want to diverse the communities whether the communities want it or not…

If I had to guess, McMansions owners are probably disproportionately white. Perhaps these are the same people who are “proud Americans“!

Then Kelly provides the typical hard-work narrative to explain her own ability to live in a nice neighborhood:

KELLY: I mean, I didn’t grow up in a fancy neighborhood. I wanted to be in one, but we couldn’t afford it and you know, then getting to an adult, I made more money and now I live in a nice neighborhood. It’s alright. It’s a nice home. The neighborhood – anyway. The point is, that’s the way it was usually done. It’s not like, you must diversify because Uncle Sam feels it’s too white or it’s too rich.

Yet, leaving it simply to hard work and market forces leaves us where we are today and where we have been for decades: ongoing residential segregation. Vouchers by zip code rather than by price point could help poorer families access the places that have the good schools and other features that can help them get ahead.

I imagine this will draw more pushback as one of the themes running through whiter and wealthier communities is exclusivity.

New York City’s public housing bind

While many cities like Chicago demolished public housing high-rises with federal money, New York City did not do so to the same degree. That means there are public housing issues lurking in the near future:

But now New York City is in a bind. It didn’t have to tear down its high-rises under HOPE VI. But it also didn’t receive federal funding to improve its public housing, as HOPE VI recipients did (in the first decade of the program, the government dispersed $5 billion through HOPE VI). Now, NYCHA is left trying to figure out how to maintain decades-old buildings and reduce the number of people on the waiting list for public housing, all as federal funding for public housing continues to drop.

Popkin, with the Urban Institute, worries that this means that certain high rises in New York’s public-housing system are becoming as bad as the worst projects initially targeted in HOPE VI. Brownsville, in Brooklyn, is now the largest concentration of public housing in the country, for example. Brownsville also has the lowest median household income in New York City. In many other areas of the country, an area of one square mile of public housing would not be allowed to exist anymore. In New York, it still does, even as violence worsens and gangs take over. And the city doesn’t have the funds to change that, let alone improve other public housing buildings.

Public housing in New York City hasn’t received as much attention from scholars and the press as it has in other cities – particularly compared to Chicago. Perhaps this is because the situation was never quite as bad, whether due to lower levels of isolation (as noted in the article) or because the NYCHA was better managed than the chronically mismanaged Chicago Housing Authority. Or perhaps the urban sociologists in NYC focused on other topics. Or maybe the glittering portions of New York City are overwhelming – don’t forget the current luxury construction boom in the city.

In the long run, New York City is not immune to the same issues of inequality and a lack of affordable housing that many major cities face. If the city wants to avoid facing bigger problems down the road, it would be prudent to take action on housing now.

New HUD study shows minorities continue to be shown fewer homes, apartments

A new HUD audit study shows that compared to whites, minorities are given less access to homes and apartments:

Compared with white homebuyers, blacks who inquire about homes listed for sale are made aware of about 17 percent fewer homes and are shown 18 percent fewer ones. Asians are told about 15 percent fewer units and are shown 19 percent fewer properties. Researchers are unsure why Hispanic buyers were treated more equitably than other minority populations.

Among renters, all minority groups found out about fewer choices than did white consumers. Hispanic testers who contacted agents about advertised rental units learned about 12 percent fewer units available and were shown 7 percent fewer than white renters saw. Black renters learned about 11 percent fewer units and saw 4 percent fewer available rentals, while Asians were told about 10 percent fewer available rentals and shown 7 percent fewer units.

In the Chicago area, researchers found that African-American and white renters got equal access to information and showings of apartments, but African-Americans were less likely than white consumers to see at least one home that had no problems.

Blacks also were more likely than whites to be told that a credit check had to be performed and that particular rental units carried fees. They also were quoted higher fees than the ones quoted to white testers. On average, the extra fees quoted to blacks put the first-year cost of securing a rental unit at $350 more than the cost for white renters.

Hispanic testers in Chicago reported that they heard comments about their credit standing more often than the white testers, and the extra payments quoted to them were $131 more than white testers’.

As the HUD Secretary notes, these actions are less obvious than the redlining, blockbusting, and restrictive covenants of the early 1900s but they still lead to similar outcomes. This kind of study with pairs having the same qualifications and traits except for their race/ethnicity has been conducted for several decades with similar results: whites consistently have better access to housing options. Limiting access to housing options like this is illegal but happens regularly both in cities and suburbs. And housing and patterns of residential segregation is related to all sorts of other important life chances including job opportunities, schools, community resources and services, and social networks.

This article fails to mention what can be done about such discriminatory practices. Housing providers and those in real estate can be sued. However, this takes place on a case by case basis and thus it can take a while to crack down on a large number of offenders.