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Discrimination Against Same-Sex Couples in Rental Housing

New research investigates the incidence of discrimination against same-sex couples in rental housing. Neither the Fair Housing Act of 1968 nor its subsequent amendments prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Although 21 states and the District of Columbia offer legal protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation, most jurisdictions have no such legislation. Community-based surveys indicate that same-sex discrimination exists, yet few empirical studies have measured the extent of discrimination against same-sex couples in housing.

The first large-scale study of its kind, "An Estimate of Housing Discrimination Against Same-Sex Couples," examines discrimination against same-sex couples in rental housing advertised online. Using a matched-pair test in which researchers email two responses to an online rental advertisement — one from a self-identified heterosexual couple and the other from a self-identified same-sex couple — the study assesses housing providers’ responses to these otherwise similar email inquiries. The matched-pair testing method, which has long been used to test for racial discrimination in housing, provides an effective means of estimating the prevalence of same-sex discrimination.

The study included 6,833 matched-pair tests (3,424 pairs matching heterosexual couples with gay men and 3,409 pairs matching heterosexual couples with lesbian women) across 50 metropolitan area housing markets. Emails were sent to rental housing providers between June and October 2011. Advertisements for one-bedroom rental units were selected from a single national online database. General aspects of the emails (such as names, subject lines, greetings, closings, and which pair’s message was sent first) were randomized. The study’s results provide several significant findings and point to additional areas for future research.

Key Findings

The major contribution of the study is to demonstrate empirically that same-sex couples experience discrimination relative to heterosexual couples in the online rental housing market. Additional findings include:

  • Gay male couples experience discrimination slightly more frequently than do lesbian couples.
  • Discrimination typically takes the form of fewer responses to email inquiries compared with heterosexual couples. Same-sex couples are discriminated against at the “threshold,” or initial stage, of the rental process.
  • Discrimination is present in all 50 sampled metropolitan areas. No discernable pattern of discrimination related to the size of the metropolitan area is apparent.
  • Discrimination was slightly more prevalent in jurisdictions with same-sex discrimination protections.
  • The study provides upper- and lower-bound estimates of discrimination, with the actual incidence of discrimination likely falling somewhere in between. At the lower-bound measure, only adverse treatment of gay male couples relative to heterosexual couples was statistically significant. At the upper-bound measure, heterosexual couples were favored over gay male couples in 15.9 percent of tests and over lesbian couples in 15.6 percent of tests.

Conclusions

Researchers conclude that the favorable treatment of heterosexual couples relative to same-sex couples in the online rental housing market is similar in magnitude to the favorable treatment of white homeseekers compared with black and Hispanic homeseekers. Rental housing providers were less likely to respond to the email inquiries of same-sex couples, blocking access to housing at the initial stage of the housing search. When both same-sex and heterosexual couples received a response, that response was largely similar (that is, for example, both received an invitation to view the rental or both received a request to provide further information about themselves).

Researchers unexpectedly found that discrimination was slightly more likely in markets in states with legal protections against same-sex discrimination. The researchers suggest that this finding may be due to insufficient enforcement, housing providers’ lack of awareness of existing protections, or simply because jurisdictions in which discrimination is most prevalent are more likely to have laws to curb it.

Areas for Further Research

The researchers identify several topics and questions that merit further investigation. For example, although this study measured discrimination only at the threshold of the rental process, discrimination against same-sex couples could also occur at later stages. In addition, the study measured discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation but not gender identity or expression. Both areas are ripe for further research but would require different methodologies, including follow-up correspondence and in-person testing. In-person testing would also allow researchers to expand their investigation beyond rental properties advertised online.