Transgender Rental Bias Revealed through Suffolk Law Housing Discrimination Tests

Transgender and gender non-conforming individuals responding to apartment ads in Greater Boston were more likely to be quoted a higher rental price, were shown fewer apartment amenities such as storage or laundry, and were less apt to be offered a financial incentive to rent, according to a study conducted by Suffolk University Law School’s Housing Discrimination Testing Program.

The study, which used data from a series of housing discrimination tests conducted during 2015 and 2016, found that transgender and gender-nonconforming people received discriminatory differential treatment 61 percent of the time compared to test groups of non-transgender individuals. It’s the first study to provide statistically significant data with respect to the rate and types of discrimination facing this vulnerable group.

The study’s findings will be published in the Yale Journal of Law & Feminism.

“It is well understood that transgender and/or gender-nonconforming people are among the most vulnerable to discrimination in our society,” the article’s authors write. “The study confirms that discrimination is occurring against this population in the Metropolitan Boston rental housing market. Such discrimination can severely limit a person’s housing choices and have a negative impact on all areas of a person’s life.”

The level of discriminatory treatment was higher for transgender and gender-nonconforming testers than has been found with studies of other kinds of protected classes, including discrimination tests based on sexual orientation and disabilities.

The Housing Discrimination Testing Program set out to gather data on the level of discrimination that transgender and gender-nonconforming people experience in the Greater Boston rental housing market. Tests were designed to mimic real apartment-search interactions and included transgender and gender-nonconforming testers as well as non-transgender and gender-conforming testers who visited the same properties at different times. Testers set up appointments to view advertised apartments and verbally or visually introduced that they were transgender or gender non-conforming to the housing provider.

Much of the differential treatment that protected-class apartment searchers experienced was subtle. In one case, the housing provider told the control tester that the security deposit on the unit could be reduced by 75 percent but made no mention of that offer to the protected-class tester. In another test, a rental agent offered to send a non-transgender apartment searcher an application and then emailed the application, but the agent never offered to provide an application to the protected-class tester. Transgender and gender-nonconforming testers were told negative things about certain housing units, having the effect of discouraging them from viewing the units. They were quoted different move-in costs and not shown amenities such as an outdoor lounge and pool area. Transgender and gender-nonconforming people were even less likely to be asked their names when meeting the rental agent in person.

“Where a person lives impacts every aspect of their life, from their health to their social interactions, so to limit or deny that opportunity can be devastating for people,” said Jamie Langowski, clinical fellow and assistant director of the Housing Discrimination Testing Program at Suffolk Law.
Past studies have found that transgender and gender-nonconforming people often are marginalized and experience harassment, high poverty rates, poor health, limited job opportunities and violence. Yet, they do not have full protection under federal civil rights statutes such as the Fair Housing Act. Massachusetts is one of 19 states that includes gender identity in state housing antidiscrimination laws; in 2012, the commonwealth’s anti-discrimination statute was amended to include gender identity as a protected class.

Opponents of antidiscrimination laws that include gender identity – such as the so-called “bathroom bills” – often cite a lack of evidence that discrimination is a problem for this population. However, the results of Suffolk Law’s Housing Discrimination Testing Program study provide evidence that gender-identity discrimination in the rental housing market is real, and rates of discrimination are high, even in a state where gender identity is a protected class.

The authors argue that such evidence calls for stronger federal protections, since under current federal fair housing law private housing providers can potentially legally discriminate against prospective tenants because they are transgender and/or gender non-conforming.

“Transgender and gender-non-conforming people deserve the full protection of our civil rights laws so they can live free from discrimination and can reach their potential as their true selves,” said William Berman, clinical professor of law and director of Suffolk Law’s Housing Discrimination Program.

The study was authored by Langowski, Berman, Regina Holloway, clinical fellow and test coordinator with the Housing Discrimination Testing Program, and attorney Cameron McGinn, who participated in the study as the Housing Discrimination Testing Program’s community engagement outreach coordinator. The study is available for download through the SSRN network

Suffolk University Law School’s Housing Discrimination Testing Program is a HUD-funded program that seeks to eliminate housing discrimination through testing, enforcement, education, outreach and academic study. Analysis Group, a firm specializing in economic and financial analysis, provided assistance in designing the protocols and conducting the analysis for the study to ensure statistically valid results.