Race Discrimination in Massachusetts Housing Market

by | Jan 11, 2023 | Discrimination |

David Harris, a Boston fair housing advocate, says racism in housing transactions remains a significant problem, more than a half century after the federal Civil Rights Act.

And Harris has the test results to prove it.

His nonprofit asked two women from different racial backgrounds to pretend to be hunting for apartments in Somerville to see what would happen.

The agent told the white tester he had two units available and could show them right away. Separately, the same agent then told the Black tester nothing was vacant. The testers only discovered the disparity when they compared notes later.

“All of us were almost in tears, right? Because this guy had so thoroughly lied to her,” said Harris, who used to lead the now defunct Fair Housing Center of Greater Boston. “This is the power of testing. There’s no way she would know he was lying.”

Again and again, Massachusetts nonprofits have used these kinds of investigations to uncover systematic bias by landlords and real estate agents. A recent study by Suffolk University found 71% of Black testers faced discrimination.

Even more disturbing, the studies show the problem isn’t going away. Advocates say that’s partly because Suffolk and other nonprofits only have enough resources to check a tiny fraction of apartments listed each year. And even when they find clear evidence of discrimination, it’s rare for landlords and brokers to face any significant punishment.

“The system is structurally broken, and it needs to be fixed,” said William Berman, who leads Suffolk’s Housing Discrimination Testing Program.

The Massachusetts Board of Real Estate Brokers and Salespersons declined interview requests. But in a statement, it said it hasn’t disciplined a single agent for discrimination in the past five years.

Some advocates say the board needs to do more to punish agents to prevent bias, including suspending or revoking agents’ licenses.

“Often times, it’s not a matter of changing hearts and minds,” said Whitney Demetrius, who works for Citizens’ Housing and Planning Association, a Boston nonprofit that helps promote access to housing. “But when you affect the pocketbook, right, it tends to affect change along the way.”

The real estate licensing board said it has received only two discrimination complaints in the last five years, limiting its ability to take action.

Still, advocates say discrimination is often so subtle that renters don’t realize they are being treated unfairly — or don’t have any evidence to prove it.

“It’s not often that someone will say something to the effect of, I’m not going to rent to you because you are x race,” said Kelly Vieira, who helps run the Suffolk testing program.

That’s why nonprofits say undercover testing is so important to root out discrimination. But they also say they are hampered, because current state laws don’t allow them to refer cases directly to the real estate broker board.

Instead, they must send cases to the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, which often takes years to resolve cases and doesn’t have the power to take away an agent’s license.

Some state officials insist they are trying to aggressively stop discrimination. Over the past four years, the Massachusetts attorney general’s office has reached more than 50 settlements with property owners, managers and agents.

Should you experience race discrimination while seeking a rental apartment in Massachusetts, contact the Law Offices of Renee Lazar at 978-844-4095 to schedule a FREE one hour no obligation consultation to discuss your situation.


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