KANNAPOLIS — Legal Aid of North Carolina recently conducted 10 matched-pair rental tests on behalf of the city and found a tendency for preferential treatment to white customers.
While 10 tests is a small sample size, the results will require follow-ups to see if this was an anomaly or a symptom of a bigger problem.
“One thing I do want to caution about is testing by its very nature is secretive,” said Jeffrey Dillman, co-director of the Fair Housing Project of Legal Aid of North Carolina, at Monday’s City Council meeting. “It is something that, in other contexts, people sometimes refer to as ‘secret shopping,’ and if our testers were known to be testers, they would probably be treated differently by most people they interact with.
“So, because of that, I can’t speak to certain details of this particular sort of methodology, and at this time we don’t want to release the names of the complexes publicly because we want to make sure before we make an allegation of discrimination that we have sufficient evidence to back that up.
“We don’t want to do that based solely on this one test that we’ve done.”
Legal Aid of North Carolina ran 10 matched-pair rental tests at medium- and large-sized complexes for the study.
Six were run for racial discrimination, while four were for national-origin discrimination.
According to the Urban Institute, in a paired test, two people are assigned fictitious identities with qualifications that are comparable in all key respects. The identities differ only on the characteristic (for example, race or presence of a disability) being tested.
Each tester of a pair then applies for the same opportunity (for example, a job or an apartment lease) and documents the interaction. With an appropriate sample of tests and statistical techniques, paired testing can identify treatment that differs for testers of different classes.
Analysis of the documentation data from each tester of a pair can measure differences in treatment that individual testers might not notice. Such analysis also can uncover subtle forms of discrimination. Overt discrimination can often be recognized as soon as it occurs: refusing to meet with a tester after seeing that he or she is disabled or a racial or ethnic minority, or making a patently discriminatory comment.
Less-obvious discrimination could take the form of a housing provider showing white testers, on average, three apartment units and minority testers, on average, two units. It could also include offering less information about rent specials to minority testers or steering them toward poorer-quality units. The individual testers would not realize they were treated differently from their matched pair, but analysis of many tests would reveal the differential treatment.
In the paired testing done in Kannapolis, three of the six tests done on racial discrimination showed a difference in treatment favoring the white tester over the black tester, while three out of four on national origin saw the same thing. In all the tests, the testers saw the same agent. Two of the other 10 tests were inconclusive as a representative was unable to meet with the tester on the scheduled day. They then followed up and were told the same information as the white tester, so they were not sure if there was a reason behind this and thus marked it inconclusive.
Dillman cautioned that it is not always the case when there is a difference in treatment that it is a case of discrimination.
“Sometimes there can be some other variable that came into play,” he said. “Sometimes a unit was rented between the time the two people came or a unit came onto the market; that could result in a difference.”
Dillman said this is often why they do more than one set of testing before they make a determination about whether there was discrimination.
He then detailed what they found in their 10 tests in Kannapolis.
“In four of the tests, whites were told about units that were not mentioned to the African American or Latino tester,” he said. “In one case, that was the case for the race-based test, and in all three of the national-origin tests, whites were told about additional units that were not mentioned to Latinos.
“In two tests, the white testers were advised that a unit would be available earlier than what was told to either the African American or Latino tester; in four of the tests, whites were quoted lower fees or were told about discounts that weren’t mentioned to the African American or Latino testers.
“And in one test, a Latino tester was told very discouraging information about how credit could affect her application when that wasn’t something that really should have been brought up given the profiles of the two testers, and that information was not mentioned to the white tester.”
Based on these results, Legal Aid of North Carolina will continue its investigations.
It has already done some follow-up testing to examine if there is a pattern of discrimination or if it was an isolated instance that could be attributed to something that was not discriminatory.
Depending on the results, the group could file fair-housing complaints against the providers, but they have not done that yet. They will inform the city about any complaints filed.
Legal Aid of North Carolina provided a confidential summary of its findings to Sherry Gordon, the community development program administrator for the city, but the summary will not be made public because they are only part-way through the investigation.
“If it turns out that in follow-up testing a provider does not treat two individuals differently — say the first test was one of the ones that showed a difference based on race and the second test there is no difference based on race — then we probably wouldn’t pursue that further because we would want to see more of a pattern of that,” Dillman said. “So, because of that reason, we wouldn’t want to release the housing providers, the landlord or the complex’s name at this stage because it still is a preliminary finding.”
Council member Tom Kincaid asked how they went about this testing, in general, because it was just 10 tests in a city of around 50,000 people.
Dillman said they can do testing in two ways: One is complaint-based, where they will come in as a result of a claim of discrimination, while the other is systemic testing, which is where they will do a small sample of tests to get a feel for what is going on.
The tests in Kannapolis were just a sample and not called in based on complaints. They did the tests at neighborhoods or units with at least 50 to 100 residents so they could get a look at what a good number of people would be seeing.
This was not a formal random sample because, in this instance, it wouldn’t necessarily tell them much, according to Dillman.
“Something that really tells you the incidents of discrimination would require many more tests than what we did,” he said. “So this was more of a snapshot of these particular complexes at this particular time.”
Dillman also said he was not surprised by their results as “very often” this is not unusual for the first round of testing. He also said he would assume in follow-ups they might not see differences in treatment, which has been his experience.
“Sometimes it could be that an agent made a mistake,” he said.
“They forgot that there was a second unit available. You would hope that they wouldn’t do that, but people make mistakes and we understand that. Any incident of discrimination is troubling, and I assume it would be troubling for anyone in the city … (but) the initial results, I think, are in line with what we have seen in other communities in North Carolina.”
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