Discriminating against people of color or anyone who relies on a voucher to pay their rent is illegal in Massachusetts, but new research suggests the practice is pervasive in the Greater Boston real estate market.
The study done by Suffolk University Law School and The Boston Foundation found unexpectedly "high levels" of discrimination based on race and source of income, researchers said, prompting calls from fair housing experts for greater enforcement.
The research was published at a moment in Massachusetts when communities of color and low-income neighborhoods have been disproportionately impacted by the deadly spread of the coronavirus, and a debate is heating up over whether to extend a moratorium on evictions and foreclosures past mid-August.
Orlando Watkins, the vice president of programming at The Boston Foundation, said housing discrimination can take many forms and is "one example of how systemic structural racism is perpetuated."
The Boston Foundation on Tuesday convened a panel of housing experts from the region and around the country to discuss the findings of the research project, and explore possible policy solutions.
The Housing Discrimination Testing Program at Suffolk Law sent undercover Black and white testers into the field to try to rent 50 different rental properties across nine cities and 11 Boston neighborhoods. At each property, four testers were used to gauge the response from landlords or real estate brokers based on whether the interested renter was white, Black or had a Section 8 voucher.
The study, researchers said, uncovered more discrimination than they had expected to find, including biases in whether renters were shown properties, offered applications, or asked about their credit scores. For example, 93 percent of white people who inquired about an apartment received a followup from the housing provider, compared to 82 percent of Black renters.
The research also found that white renters were twice as likely to be told positive things about the size of the unit or its proximity to public transit as Black renters.
Stella Adams, a national housing fairness expert from North Carolina, said that Massachusetts and Boston were "blessed" to not only have laws banning discrimination based on race, but to be one of 17 states to protect people from discrimination based on their source of income.
"If not necessarily a policy change, what we need is enforcement of existing policies and enforcement of existing laws," Adams said.
William Berman, director of the Housing Discrimination Testing Program at Suffolk Law School, said government agencies also need more "teeth" to penalize realtors who discriminate.
"Real estate brokers are playing a significant role in purveying this discrimination so that needs to stop. There needs to be incentives for them to be shepherds in the process rather than helping their clients discriminate," said Berman, who led the research effort.
"We need to have more teeth in terms of the brokers who discriminate - the ability to suspend their licenses so their livelihoods will be impacted so the incentive will be not to discriminate," he said.
In April, the Legislature and Gov. Charlie Baker partnered to put in place a moratorium on evictions and foreclosures to protect renters and homeowners who might not be able to meet their monthly payment obligations due to COVID-19 as the economy cratered and shed tens of thousands of jobs.
But as the state has begun to reopen and some of those jobs are coming back, there's a question over whether to continue the protection or modify it in any way. Baker has the authority to extend the moratorium for 90 days at a time, but said Tuesday he had not decided.
Meanwhile, Reps. Mike Connolly of Cambridge and Kevin Honan of Boston have filed a bill to prohibit evictions and foreclosures for year beyond when Baker lifts the COVID-19 public health emergency. A coalition of community groups is rallying behind the bill, warning that without action as many as 20,000 people - many of whom will be people of color -- could be evicted in late August.
Ivan Espinoza-Madrigal, of Lawyers for Civil Rights, said preventing discrimination in housing can be complicated.
"This issue of enforcement is really key," he said. "Testing is really complex and resource intensive so in an ideal world we would have federal oversight from (Housing and Urban Development) and the Department of Justice, but that hasn't been our lived reality for the past four years."
Espinoza-Madrigal also said that another problem is that Black and low-income residents often don't know they're being discriminated against because they don't know how interested white renters are being treated differently.
"If I go and I'm told the apartment is not available or I get ghosted or they just tell me they're not doing any more showings because of COVID-19, while the white renters are getting virtual tours, that's not necessarily something I would know," Espinoza-Madrigal said.
"And as people of color, we have normalized that rejection," he added.
Olivia Winslow, who spearheaded an investigation into discriminatory housing practices on Long Island for Newsday, concurred with that assessment.
"It's not like in the 1960s and 1970s when real estate agents said we don't service Black people or you can only get a house in this part of town. That's not the way it's done," she said.
The Newsday investigation prompted investigation by local and state legislative bodies, as well as the New York attorney general, and led to promises from local housing officials to put more money into enforcement and from the real estate industry to improve training. But that was before COVID-19 and the economic toll the pandemic has taken on state and local government to invest in things like fair housing enforcement.
"The only way to get at this is through testing and through enforcement," Winslow said, adding, "What we're hearing is that random testing should be done all the time."
Attorney General Maura Healey said her office was committed to fair access to housing for everyone, and "will not tolerate bias or discrimination of any kind."
"The results of this study are deeply troubling and further reinforce the immediate need to address the longstanding injustices Black people face in every aspect of their lives – including in their access to housing," Healey said in a statement. "It's important that people know their protections under the law and that my office is here for them."
Healey is responsible for enforcing fair housing laws in Massachusetts, alongside the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination. Her office said that can include taking legal action on complaints that come into the offices, or investigating practices at larger apartment complexes.
In March 2019, Healey's office reached a $600,000 settlement with Metropolitan Properties of America over allegations that the company, and its subsidiary MPA Granada Highlands, discriminated against tenants of a Malden complex based on their race and voucher status.
Since the moratorium on evictions went into effect, the attorney general said her office has been monitoring housing courts for violations and has helped get 50 illegal evictions withdrawn.