BLOG: The local drivers of housing discrimination
Amy Binner (University of Exeter), Christopher Timmins (University of Wisconsin), and Gwilym Pryce (University of Sheffield) explore the complex interplay between innate human tendencies toward discrimination and external factors such […]
Published: 25 Apr, 2024

Amy Binner (University of Exeter), Christopher Timmins (University of Wisconsin), and Gwilym Pryce (University of Sheffield) explore the complex interplay between innate human tendencies toward discrimination and external factors such as legal frameworks and local context in shaping housing inequalities.

Discrimination is, we are told, a universal phenomenon, a product of innate human tendencies to place people in categories. That we all have a propensity to slip into tribal thinking, to categorise folk as them and us, outgroup and ingroup, is a product of our evolutionary history. We can’t escape it. 

However, whilst these underlying behavioural traits might be universal, the extent to which they manifest themselves in discriminatory practices may vary markedly. Differences in legal frameworks, cultural norms and government policies can be important in determining the extent to which underlying tendencies are expressed as actual discrimination. Britain’s recent enactment of the Right to Rent legislation is a case in point. The 2016 Immigration Act made landlords legally responsible for checking the immigration status of tenancy applicants, making them liable to an unlimited fine or a custodial sentence for letting a home to someone born outside the UK unless they have an appropriate visa. Following a legal challenge against implementing this legislation in 2019, a High Court judge concluded that “the scheme introduced by the government does not merely provide the occasion or opportunity for private landlords to discriminate, but causes them to do so where otherwise they would not”. Whilst the ruling was subsequently overturned following an appeal by the Home Office, the court nevertheless acknowledged that some landlords were likely to discriminate out of “administrative convenience and a fear of the consequences of letting to an irregular immigrant”. 

So whilst our innate tendency to categorise people may be universal, different policy conventions and historical precedents may give rise to significant differences in the incidence of discrimination between countries. 

But what about differences within countries? Are there reasons to believe that discrimination might vary depending on local context? Surprisingly, there seems to be very little robust research on this, even though there are good reasons to think that housing discrimination might depend on neighbourhood context. Estate agents might be influenced by how people in the area feel about living near particular ethnic minorities. Local intergroup tensions might make letting agents less likely to rent out a property if they believe a tenant might feel unwelcome or unsafe there. 

Deprivation may also be an important factor. Poverty shifts the power balance between landlords and tenants. In affluent areas, renters will be more likely to have the financial clout to challenge landlords and estate agents who openly discriminate. This is much less likely in deprived areas where the erosion of legal aid now makes legal challenges against housing discrimination all but impossible for low income households. Deprivation may also heighten the sense of threat from migrants and ethnic minorities because they may be perceived to be competing for scarce local resources, such as housing. Such tensions may lead to the emergence of social frontiers – abrupt boundaries between neighbouring communities – which may reinforce the sense of territorial divides between communities and influence estate agents’ letting decisions. 

Our argument in a recent working paper1 is that these potentially important causes of local variation in housing discrimination call for a more fine-grained approach to measurement. We propose a robust methodological approach to gauging the extent of discrimination. We demonstrate the approach with an application to four English cities: Rotherham, Bradford, Sandwell and Reading, but the method could potentially be rolled out across all major towns and cities in the UK. 

So what did we find? Is there evidence of discrimination against ethnic minorities in any of the four cities? And do local factors such as deprivation and social frontiers have an effect? Our results suggest clear evidence of discrimination against ethnic minorities in all four cities, evidenced by lower response rates from estate agents to more than seven thousand ‘mystery shopper’ letting applications, especially for applicants with South Asian names. Among those that received a response, we also find strong evidence that the tone of the response was less encouraging if the enquiries were from South Asian names, Polish names or White female names relative to White male names. We found similar effects for enquiries that mentioned universal credit or housing benefit. Our results also suggest that ethnic minority applicants are being steered away from desirable neighbourhoods, an effect that varied markedly by city. We also observed asymmetric effects along social frontiers, with differences in response rates depending on the side of the neighbourhood boundary where a property was located. 

Taken together, these results provide strong evidence that discrimination varies across locations, depending on neighbourhood characteristics. This suggests that anti-discrimination policies need to be tailored to local socio-economic contexts. Location matters for housing discrimination and policy making should be cognisant of this. 

  1. Housing Discrimination in Context: A Comparative Study of Housing Discrimination in Four English Towns and the Role of the Local Environmental and Socioeconomic Context, Working Paper by Amy Binner (University of Exeter), Christopher Timmins (University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA), Gwilym Pryce (University of Sheffield), Peter Christensen (University of Illinois, USA) and William Booth-Clibborn (University of Cambridge). Available on request from g.pryce@sheffield.ac.uk. ↩︎

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