Greater Boston’s rental housing industry has a serious racism problem, and it’s going to take effort from industry and government to solve.
As researchers from Suffolk University Law School found when randomly testing area rental listings between August 2018 and August 2019, many apartment brokers blatantly discriminated against Black testers in setting up apartment showings, in customer service and in their basic willingness to work with them. Worst of all, some brokers would even “ghost” Black testers, suddenly cutting off all communication without explanation when the tester’s race or their intent to use a Section 8 voucher became apparent.
No serious person can tell themselves that these results were the product of shoddy study design. To make sure no other factor could influence the broker’s actions, the listings in each test were randomly chosen, testers did not know each other, participated in only one test each and, in each test, had the same income, credit score, sex, disability, family size and gender identity.
Discrimination on the basis of race or source of income is against the law in Massachusetts. But many may wonder how Suffolk’s researchers can come up with such horrifying findings if every Realtor they know is an upstanding individual. Indeed, the state’s two biggest Realtor trade groups – the Massachusetts Association of Realtors and the regional Greater Boston Real Estate Board – regularly train their members in Fair Housing law and in the ethics of anti-discrimination and have the ability to kick out members who violate either.
Part of the answer can be found in that “R.” According to MAR, there are around 55,000 more licensed real estate agents than there are Realtors in Massachusetts. That’s 55,000 people who may not be trained as thoroughly as they should be, and who are not exposed to the same kinds of peer pressures to behave justly as are their Realtor brethren.
But no white Bay Stater can ignore the uncomfortable reality described time and again by so many of their neighbors of color: Plenty of white Massachusetts residents carry biases against people of color or are willing to accept those biases in others around them.
A problem like this can seem insurmountable without having the names of offending real estate agents or brokerages who can be chastised and cast out of the profession. But some immediate actions are obvious.
First, in her role as the state’s top consumer watchdog, Attorney General Maura Healey should convene a task force of industry representatives, housing advocates, legislators, regulators and fair housing experts to come up with an action plan by Labor Day that includes ways to beef up enforcement of existing fair housing laws and specific funding asks to bring before the state legislature.
Second, every agent should take time to absorb the report’s findings and review the ways they interact with landlords and prospective buyers and renters, searching for similar places where bias worms its way into their work. No matter what the future regulatory regime will look like, agents will always be Massachusetts’ bulwark against discrimination in the real estate markets.
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