• Gender Identity Discrimination in the Greater Boston Housing Market

    A study by researchers at Suffolk University Law School’s (SULS’s) Housing Discrimination Testing Program (HDTP) has found evidence of gender identity discrimination in the housing market in the Greater Boston area. An Analysis Group team including Vice President Shannon Seitz and Senior Analysts Emily Chiu and Tripti Singh provided pro bono support for the study, assisting with designing the protocols and conducting the analysis. In this Q&A, Professor William Berman, Director of the HDTP and Managing Partner of SULS’s Accelerator Practice, and Jamie Langowski, Assistant Director of the HDTP, discuss their study. A case profile about the study can be found here, and the full study can be found here.

    Q: Why focus on the issue of gender identity-based discrimination in housing?

    William Berman

    William Berman: Director, Suffolk University Law School Housing Discrimination Testing Program

    We know anecdotally that transgender and gender non-conforming people face discrimination in many areas of their lives, including housing. At the same time, jurisdictions across the country are considering laws that will roll back protections for transgender people. It is important to provide information to policymakers and voters on the prevalence of discrimination against transgender people, so that when they make decisions that impact people’s lives, they understand the implications of their decisions.

    Q: Why was it important to gather statistical evidence for this study, rather than relying on analysis of matched pair tests as your organization typically would?

    he HDTP regularly conducts matched pair tests to identify cases of housing discrimination to meet the requirements of a prima facie case. These tests involve comparing the treatment of a person who is transgender and/or gender non-conforming with the treatment of someone who is gender conforming and not transgender (cisgender).

    These tests are used for enforcement purposes when the goal is to document the outcome of a specific interaction between an individual (the tester) and a housing provider. For a research study, however, it was important to gather evidence that would allow inferences regarding the local rental market generally, not just in any given specific interaction.

    In the matched pair tests that the HDTP typically conducts, we seek to gather information about a particular housing provider’s typical business practice. A housing provider might be tested between one and three different times, so the HDTP can be certain that any differential treatment received by the testers from a protected class is due to the protected class status and not some other factor.

    Such evidence is regularly used to prosecute individual cases of discrimination by a particular housing provider, but it cannot be used to assess the extent of discrimination beyond one specific landlord or rental agency. There were no empirical studies in the literature that measured the level of discrimination occurring in the rental housing market against transgender and gender non-confirming individuals through the use of a controlled experiment. This is where the expertise of Analysis Group became critical to our analysis.

    Jamie Langowski - headshot

    Jamie Langowski: Assistant Director, Suffolk University Law School Housing Discrimination Testing Program

    Q: What was Analysis Group's role in this research?

    Analysis Group helped us to embed our matched pair testing protocol within a controlled experiment. In particular, they designed an experiment to estimate the extent of discrimination against the transgender population using the matched pair testing approach we have used in the past. By randomizing the selection of rental units and the contacts of testers with rental agents and landlords, and then providing a statistical analysis of the testing outcomes, we were able to gather empirical estimates of discrimination for which we had high confidence in the validity of the results.

    Q: Were you surprised by any of the results?

    Yes, we were. We had anticipated that we would find a high level of discrimination against this group of people, and we did find that; however, some of the specific ways that they received differential treatment were surprising. For example, in the tests where gender identity was explicitly revealed, transgender and/or gender non-conforming testers were 38 percent less likely to be asked their names than the gender conforming cisgender control testers they were paired with. A finding like that clearly demonstrates the differential treatment that two individuals can receive and how such a discriminatory tone can be set right from the start of an interaction.

    We also found that the transgender and gender non-conforming testers were 9 percent more likely to be quoted a higher rental price and 27 percent less likely to be shown additional areas of the apartment complex, such as the laundry facilities or the pool areas. These differential treatments are subtle enough that most individuals would not even be aware that they were being discriminated against or treated differently than other renters.

    Q: What can legal experts and economists learn from each other when working on a project like this?

    This was a surprising but rewarding part of our work. We came to this project with very different knowledge and backgrounds than the staff at Analysis Group. In the end, this experience taught us a lot about the work economists do – we gained new and valuable insight into the way economists approach problems and how their work can be complementary to the enforcement work we do. In turn, the staff at Analysis Group was able to gain detailed knowledge of the enforcement side of our work. Our work together is a great example of how the whole can sometimes be greater than the sum of the parts. ■


  • This feature was published in April 2017.