Assessing Strategies to Combat Housing Discrimination in New York City: A Field Experiment

Awarded Scholars:
Macartan Humphreys, Columbia University
Project Date:
Dec 2012
Award Amount:
Project Programs:
Cultural Contact

Led by political scientist Macartan Humphreys, a RSF-funded study examines the effectiveness of governmental programs to reduce discrimination in the urban rental housing market.

Housing discrimination against racial minorities continues to persist in New York City despite one of the most comprehensive fair housing laws in the country. The latest large-scale multi-city audit of housing discrimination conducted by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development between 2000 and 2002 revealed significant levels of discrimination in housing against blacks and Hispanics in NYC. Yet, little evidence exists concerning the effectiveness of different types of institutional responses to discrimination. What is the impact of governmental appeals encouraging landlords and brokers to comply with fair housing law on the incidence of discrimination experienced by racial minorities who interact with these landlords and brokers during the housing search process? Columbia University’s Center for the Study of Development Strategies has partnered with the City of New York to examine strategies to combat discrimination against racial minorities in the rental housing market.

Led by political scientist Macartan Humphreys, the study examines the effectiveness of governmental programs to reduce discrimination in the urban rental housing market. The subjects of the study are landlords or brokers who reply to inquiries about their NYC rental housing ads and who interact with three prospective rental housing seekers – the testers. In order to compare landlords and brokers’ treatment of different racial minorities, these teams of three testers – one white, one black, and one Hispanic – only vary by race and are matched on other key social, demographic, and biographical characteristics that may affect the dynamics of personal interactions with landlords and brokers.

Using the audit design methodology pioneered by past housing discrimination studies to measure discrimination by race, subjects are randomly assigned to one of three possible experimental groups, each corresponding to a different messaging condition. Landlords and brokers may receive (1) a punitive message, highlighting the potential costs of violating fair housing law; (2) an informational message, reminding landlords and brokers of their obligations under fair housing law; and (3) a control condition in which no message of any form is sent. Data collected through this experimental and ethnographic study will illustrate where rental housing discrimination against blacks and Hispanics is most prevalent in New York City at different times and places, from the city block level to the borough or city level, allowing Humphreys to shed light on the structure and distribution of discrimination in NYC.

The results of the study will be published in a non-technical public report. Humphreys will also write at least one article for submission to a peer-reviewed journal that contains technical findings, which highlight the social scientific contributions of the study. The dataset used to analyze the findings will also be made available to the social science research community.


RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences is a peer-reviewed, open-access journal of original empirical research articles by both established and emerging scholars.


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