One assumption among those who study housing discrimination has been that it’s more likely to occur in wealthier, whiter enclaves.
That was the hypothesis of researchers at the University of Michigan who analyzed incidents reported to the Fair Housing Center of Metropolitan Detroit in order to understand how discrimination broke down across the region.
Their findings upset that hypothesis. Between 2008 and 2017, 988 incidents were reported to the housing center. They show that discrimination on the basis of race or disability was more likely to occur in neighborhoods with lower incomes, more renters, and a higher proportion of Black or Hispanic residents.
The study found housing discrimination occurring at higher rates in areas whose residents are already “fairly vulnerable,” said Roshanak Mehdipanah, the study’s lead researcher and an assistant professor at the U-M School of Public Health.
That includes majority-Black communities like Detroit, Inkster, or Pontiac, where eviction rates are high and the proportion of homeowners slim compared to communities like Warren or Sterling Heights.
Steve Tomkowiak, the executive director of the Fair Housing Center of Metropolitan Detroit, says one incident of housing discrimination can lead to chronic vulnerability for an individual.
“Could be race, could be mental disability, physical disability,” he said. “They get turned down multiple times. Or discriminated against multiple times. It’s not a one-time thing. And that’s really upsetting.”
As the study’s authors note, this housing instability can erode both physical and mental health. That’s of particular concern right now, as pandemic-wrought hardships make evictions more and more likely.
Mehdipanah says while the study delineates race and disability related housing discrimination in metro Detroit in a new way, researchers would have a clearer understanding of the breakdown if residents were better informed about what constitutes discrimination.
Many incidents in whiter, more affluent communities might go unreported.
“There are still times where illegal steering happens, where real estate agents might direct individuals to certain neighborhoods, under the pretenses that, 'Oh, these neighborhoods would be better for you and your family,'” she said.
She says there should be efforts to better educate residents about these more subtle cases of housing discrimination. Tomkowiak says organizations like the Fair Housing Center can provide some of that education, but that getting through to everyone isn't easy.
“How often does someone need an attorney, or need to bring a legal claim for housing discrimination?” he said. “You need that service when an incident occurs. And the question is, at that point in time, are you aware that there’s centers, or something, that will be available to assist you? That’s the challenge, to reach it at the individual level.”