Name can lead to housing discrimination

May 24, 2006

CORVALLIS, Ore. - A new study shows you don't have to be African-American to face discrimination in the pursuit of rental housing, you just have to have a name that sounds as if you may be.

The study's authors sent more than 1,100 identically worded e-mail inquiries to Los Angeles-area landlords asking about vacant apartments advertised online. The inquiries were signed randomly, with an equal number signed Patrick McDougall, Tyrell Jackson or Said Al-Rahman. The fictional McDougall received positive or encouraging replies from 89 percent of the landlords, while Al-Rahman was encouraged by 66 percent of the landlords.

Only 56 percent, however, responded positively to Jackson.

A "positive response" from a landlord was an e-mail saying that the apartment was still open, or an invitation to come view the property. A "negative" response was a reply that the apartment had already been rented or the lack of a reply at all.

Results of the research were published recently in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology.

"Los Angeles is one of the most diverse cities in the world, but it's clear that housing discrimination exists and that it begins long before a landlord meets a prospective tenant," said William E. Loges, an assistant professor of new media communications and sociology at Oregon State University and a co-author of the study.

The study's lead author was Adrian G. Carpusor, a former student under Loges at the University of Southern California. Carpusor now conducts research for JD Power & Associates.

In their study, Carpusor and Loges hypothesized that Al-Rahman would have the most difficult time getting a response because of post-9-11 sentiments. In fact, the Iraq war broke out during the middle of the researchers' 2003 data collection. But it didn't really change the percentages, Loges pointed out.

"We thought there might be a discrepancy between the Anglo-sounding name and the other two," Loges said, "but we were surprised by the severity of the reaction - especially to Tyrell Jackson. He was the only one to get any responses directly questioning whether he could really afford the apartment."

Some of the difference may be attributable to coincidence, the authors say. But because the names were assigned randomly - and the sample was so large - coincidence should only account for a statistical variation of about 3 percent, Loges and Carpusor point out. In fact, the variation in responses received by McDougall, Al-Rahman and Jackson differ by more than 20 percent.

The racial/ethnic identity of the landlords isn't known, the authors add, so it is difficult to dig deeper into the dynamics behind the responses. Still, the difference in responses is significant.

"There are many communities that make up the Los Angeles area," said OSU's Loges, a former resident of the city who studied L.A.'s ethnic neighborhoods while working at USC from 2000-03. "It is possible that Tyrell Jackson may have been welcomed in Crenshaw - one of L.A.'s African-American neighborhoods -- but Patrick McDougall received so many positive replies that it's unlikely that there's any neighborhood in which he wasn't welcomed by landlords.

"McDougall was much more likely to be accepted into any enclave than Jackson."

The authors noted whether ownership of the apartments was private or corporate and had theorized that there would be fewer negative responses to Al-Rahman and Jackson at the corporate level. They were wrong.

"There was little difference at all," Loges said. "We thought that some of the bigger corporate complexes - which have hundreds and hundreds of units - would be more professionally run. They would have the resources to train their staffs on residential discrimination law. But even if such training occurred, there was no difference in the reactions to these applications between corporate-run complexes and privately-run apartments."

Rent varied for the one-bedroom apartments that were the subject of the inquiries, but the amount of rent made no difference in the outcome. Inquiries by the fictitious McDougall received more positive responses in all three income levels - less than $1,000, $1,000 to $1,500, and more than $1,500 a month.

While most of the negative responses to all of the fictitious apartment-seekers were "covert" - meaning they simply didn't receive a reply at all - Al-Rahman was more likely to receive an "overt" response explicitly stating that the apartment had been rented and not to bother visiting.

The three fictitious names were based on Census Bureau rankings of popular first and last names and informal canvassing of the researchers' colleagues and acquaintances within the ethnic groups suggested by those names.

The authors say their study was simple, yet has significant implications. Additional laws are not needed, they note, but enforcement of current laws that include discrimination based on name appears to be lacking.

"Names are powerful indicators of who we are," Carpusor said. "They may disclose our religious affiliation, sex, social position, ethnic background, tribal affiliation and even age. A recent interview on National Public Radio pointed out that a first name in Iraqi culture could disclose one's affiliation with either the Shiite or Sunni Muslims - and that 16 men named Omar were killed in one day because of that affiliation."

"It's unlikely we'll experience such extreme name discrimination in the United States," Loges said, "but nevertheless, it's sad when you only have a 50-50 chance of even seeing an apartment if your name happens to be Tyrell Jackson."
By Mark Floyd, 541-737-0788

Oregon State University

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