This American Life episode on housing discrimination very misleading
Last week This American Life had an episode on housing discrimination, House Rules, which drew upon a ProPublica series, Living Apart – Fair Housing in America. The TAL episode began with a side-by-side comparison of the differing treatments of black and white renters-to-be by a super in Queens. Then it went back in time and focused on the long and arduous process of passing legislation to allow for equal access to housing, and then enforcing said legislation. The moral of the story is that things haven’t changed as much as you think they’ve changed. This moral is reinforced by the selective narrative framework of TAL.
As it happens though HUD has been doing broad surveys of the exact form that is outlined in the TAL episode. So I decided to browse the 2012 report. If you read the whole thing, you conclude that:
1) There is indeed discrimination against minorities.
2) But the differences are often on the margin. The stories in TAL are at the tails of the distribution, but people may be confused and assume they are ubiquitous.
For example, from the full report from HUD: “black, Hispanic, and Asian renters are all shown significantly fewer housing units than equally qualified whites. Blacks are shown about one fewer unit for every 25 visits; Hispanics are shown one fewer unit for every 14 visits; and Asians are shown one fewer unit for every 13 visits.” These are statistically significant differences, but probably less than what you might expect given the stories highlighted in the TAL episode. Additionally, the report makes clear that there has been a massive decline in housing discrimination since the 1970s.