Qualified Renters Need Not Apply

Study finds high levels of discrimination against Blacks, low-income renters

A new study by a research team from Suffolk University Law School finds Greater Boston landlords and agents are discriminating against Black renters and those with Section 8 housing vouchers, illegally shutting out qualified renters. The research was released today by the Housing Discrimination Testing Program (HDTP) at Suffolk University Law School, Analysis Group, and the Boston Foundation.

To see the full study, download the [PDF].  See coverage in:

The discrimination testing study revealed that housing providers, mostly real estate brokers, showed Black testers about half the number of apartments they showed to white testers. They told white testers that more units were available, showed them more units, offered them more incentives to rent, and made more positive comments about the units. [Details on testing structure below.]

The testing, conducted from August 2018 to July 2019, also uncovered high levels of discrimination against people with Section 8 housing vouchers, regardless of race. The federal government’s Section 8 voucher program, helps low-income families, the elderly, and people with disabilities afford rental housing in the private market.

Ninety percent of the testers who indicated they were using a voucher faced discriminatory behavior from a rental agent, for example:

  • cutting off communication with the tester
  • not offering a rental application
  • not setting up an appointment to visit properties

“The promise of the Section 8 program is a hollow one if a voucher holder is turned away from renting a property 9 out of 10 times just because they are trying to use a voucher–and this in a state where this kind of discrimination is explicitly illegal,” said Law Professor William Berman, director of Suffolk Law’s HDTP.

Overall, Black testers, faced discrimination in 71 percent of the tests (for example: not being able to make an appointment, not being offered an application, not being offered financial incentives, like a free parking space or rental discount, that were offered to white testers).

“The study demonstrates in vivid detail the added burden of discrimination that non-white and low-income families face when seeking housing,” said Soni Gupta, senior director, Housing and Neighborhoods at the Boston Foundation. “At a time when we know that access to a home is critical for a family’s health and overall well-being, these findings underscore the need for equal rights and protections for all Greater Boston residents so they live in the homes and the communities of their choice.”

“We expected the numbers to be high, based on what we see in our work every day, but this is much more pervasive evidence of discrimination than any of us thought we would find,” said Jamie Langowski, assistant director of the HDTP. “This study confirms what housing advocates and voucher holders in the Boston area already know; that there are extremely high rates of discrimination based on race and source of income.”

When agents dealt with Black testers, the incidence of “ghosting”—cutting off communication—was much higher. White testers continued to hear back from agents 92 percent of the time. Black testers only heard back 62 percent of the time.

Testers who had vouchers, regardless of their race, were prevented from viewing apartments at very high rates. White voucher holders were able to view rental apartments only 12 percent of the time. Black voucher holders were able to view apartments they were interested in renting 18 percent of the time.

By contrast, white testers paying market rate (with no voucher) were granted a walk-through to 80 percent of the same rental units. Market rate Black testers were given an appointment to visit slightly less than half of the apartments.

How discrimination testing works

In the study, funded by a grant from the Boston Foundation and the Racial Justice Fund, 200 testers were trained and deployed to pose as interested renters in four groups:

  • White renters paying market rate
  • Black renters paying market rate
  • White renters using Section 8 vouchers
  • Black renters using Section 8 vouchers

One member of each group contacted the advertisers of 50 different randomly selected rental properties in nine cities and eleven Boston neighborhoods. Race was introduced in the initial contact by assigned race-associated tester names and in person by the tester’s physical appearance. Vouchers were introduced during interactions with housing providers, as testers were trained to explicitly mention their voucher.

They then recorded outcomes of their housing search and the treatment they received from apartment brokers or owners.

“Well-designed studies that enable researchers to clearly identify the source and the nature of discrimination are critical for developing effective policies,” said Jee-Yeon Lehmann, Vice President of Analysis Group.

Both federal and state law prohibit discrimination based on race, and it is illegal in Massachusetts to discriminate against a person because they have a housing voucher.

Got a voucher? Then it’s likely there’s no apartment available

Consistent with results from HDTP’s prior work on housing discrimination, much of the race-based discrimination would be hard to uncover without a testing system. The voucher-based discrimination was often much more explicit. About 40 percent of the time, the housing provider stopped communicating with testers altogether after the testers revealed they intended to use vouchers.

In a number of tests, the broker told the tester outright that the owner was not accepting voucher participants. “You understand right? I mean, talking to you, you sound totally normal,” said one agent. “I mean a lot of people with Section 8 aren’t the greatest people, so sometimes people can be prejudicial about that,” the agent added.

Adding to the frustration of securing an apartment, voucher-holders are on a tight timeline before their voucher expires. Substantive discipline of rental agents who discriminate is rare and the state legislature should make it easier to suspend offending brokers, the study argues.

“The COVID-19 crisis and killing of George Floyd and so many other unarmed Black people has shone a bright light on the negative effects of the structural racism that has always existed in our country. This is a problem right here in our own community,” said Berman.

“We must examine our practices and policies and take action to dismantle structural racism and promote racial equity. Removing barriers to equal access to housing for Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color and people with vouchers is a good place to start,” he added.

About the Organizations

The HDTP works to eliminate illegal housing discrimination through testing, enforcement, education, and research. The program was established with grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). To date, Suffolk Law School Professor William Berman and his colleagues have conducted over 500 housing discrimination tests and trained over 500 students and community members as housing discrimination testers in the metro Boston area.

Analysis Group is one of the largest international economics consulting firms, with more than 1,000 professionals across 14 offices in North America, Europe, and Asia. Since 1981, it has provided expertise in economics, finance, health care analytics, and strategy to top law firms, Fortune Global 500 companies, and government agencies worldwide. Analysis Group’s internal experts, together with its network of affiliated experts from academia, industry, and government, offer its clients exceptional breadth and depth of expertise.

The Boston Foundation, Greater Boston’s community foundation, seeks to bring the collective power of our region’s people and resources together to drive real change. Established in 1915, it is one of the largest community foundations in the nation—with net assets of $1.3 billion. In 2019, the Foundation received $151 million in contributions and the Foundation and its donors paid $153 million in grants to nonprofit organizations. The Foundation has many partners, including its donors, who have established more than 1,000 separate charitable funds for the general benefit of the community or for special purposes. With support from the Annual Campaign for Civic Leadership, the Foundation also facilitates public discourse and action, commissions research into the most critical issues of our time and advocates for public policy that advances opportunity for everyone.

The Fund for Racial Justice Innovation was established in 2003 by the Boston Foundation in collaboration with the Hyams Foundation in an effort to strengthen partnerships between community-based organizations and lawyers that use legal tools to advance equity resource distribution for communities or groups marginalized by race, color, ethnicity or immigration status. The Hyams Foundation is a private, independent foundation with a mission of increasing economic, racial, and social justice and power within low-income communities in Boston and Chelsea, Massachusetts.


Michael Fisch
Office of Public Affairs

Greg Gatlin
Office of Public Affairs