Are Renters Discriminated Against on the Basis of Mental Disabilities?

Are Renters Discriminated Against on the Basis of Mental Disabilities?
Joy Hammel, Janet Smith, Susan Scovill, Ron Campbell, Rui Duan
US Department of Housing and Urban Development, Office of Policy Development and Research
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Though the 15 million Americans who have mental disabilities are legally protected against discrimination by federal measures, including the Fair Housing Act, a new US Department of Housing and Urban Development study finds that they may experience the search for rental housing differently than counterparts without disabilities. To fill the literature gap, this study sought to pilot methods for conducting paired testing among people with mental illness (MI) or an intellectual or developmental disability (I/DD) to demonstrate a possible approach for future national testing. The authors conducted matched-pair testing to examine differences in treatment by housing providers between people with MI or I/DD and people without such disabilities. Paired testers were matched on such characteristics as age, income, race, and gender and were tested across three modes of contact with housing providers: email, telephone, and in person. More than 1,000 matched-pair tests were conducted over 18 months in two large rental markets. Pretests were conducted initially to ensure correct data collection, processing, and administrative strategies. This is the first national study that included people with MI or I/DD in actual housing discrimination tests, and it validated the use of testers with disabilities in housing discrimination research. The study found that people with MI or I/DD sometimes experience discrimination when trying to get information about rental housing, when applying for rental housing, and after moving in, and the authors propose several policy changes to reduce this discrimination.

Key findings

  • People with MI or I/DD were less likely to receive responses to inquiries about rental housing (17.55 percent compared with 9.19 percent, via email), and with MI or I/DD were less likely to be invited to inspect available units (21.26 percent compared with 16.47 percent, via telephone).
  • People with MI or I/DD were more likely to be encouraged to look at a different unit that the one advertised (via telephone).
  • A significant proportion of people with MI and I/DD were given negative responses to reasonable requests for accommodation in their rental homes.
  • The authors recommend that a wide-ranging education initiative be created to educate housing providers about fair housing rights and that public and private housing, civil groups, and others engage and educate people with MI or I/DD about their rights. The authors also emphasize the need for additional research to further explore the extent of discrimination.