Looking For A Home When Your Name Is Hispanic And Finding Discrimination Instead

Nov 2, 2017
Originally published on November 2, 2017 6:53 pm

About a year ago, Gustavo Douaihi and Laura Smith were looking to rent a house in Baton Rouge, La.

Douaihi, a geologist from Venezuela, and Smith, a high school English teacher who grew up in Alabama, had just gotten married. The couple was living in a tiny house overflowing with wedding presents when they noticed that a larger, nicer home in their neighborhood was available for rent.

"When we saw the 'For Rent' sign, I pushed Gustavo to call and look into it," Smith says.

Douaihi left a voicemail with his name, explaining that he was a young, married person already in the neighborhood and interested in moving to another home.

He didn't hear back. He called again a week later. Again, no reply.

Then Smith called and left a similar voicemail and left her "very white" name. This time, "the woman texted me back like within five minutes," Smith says.

"It was so clear that the landlord responded differently to me than to my husband," she says. "The only different information she had between the two voicemails was ... a Hispanic name."

Over the years, many other Latinos have had similar experiences.

In a new poll, 31 percent of Latinos report that at some point in their lives they experienced discrimination because they are Latino when looking for a house or apartment. The poll was sponsored by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

And housing discrimination has lasting, profound effects beyond the frustration Douaihi and Smith experienced.

"A safe, decent, affordable apartment can act like a vaccine. It can keep you healthy now and in the future," says Dr. Megan Sandel, a pediatrician and researcher at Boston Medical Center.

The safety, education norms and social networks of neighborhoods matter just as much as lead paint and leaky pipes. "That has huge implications for your income and ultimately your life expectancy," Sandel says. "Your ZIP code may be more important to your health than your genetic code."

Her hospital is in Roxbury, a lower-income neighborhood in Boston with a large minority population.

"Right outside of our door here at Boston Medical Center, the average life expectancy is 58 years," Sandel says. "You travel 3 miles down to the Back Bay, and the life expectancy is 91 years. We know that that is based on your environment."

So if Latinos and other minority ethnic groups are being discriminated against and end up in neighborhoods with fewer resources because of it, it's discrimination with a real public health concern.

Stephen Ross, an economist at the University of Connecticut, says there is evidence that housing discrimination against minorities is on the decline. "This happens much less than it used to," he says.

In his research, white, black and Latino researchers, posing as people looking for a new home, show up to inquire about houses or apartments to rent or buy. In 2000, a study found that nearly 7 percent of the time, Latinos were told by landlords that apartments were not available to rent when in fact they were. Twelve years later, that happened only 2 percent of the time.

Ross says that over the past three decades, enforcement efforts by fair housing centers across the country have made a real impact, but these efforts continue to find evidence of discrimination.

Douaihi and Smith found a bigger house to accommodate their needs this past spring. But when their experience with discrimination comes up, it's still painful.

"She hasn't stopped telling her family and friends about it," Douaihi says. "She's on my side, which is great."

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Buying or renting a home in a place where you want to live is a bedrock part of the American experience. But 31 percent of Latinos report experiencing discrimination when looking for a house or an apartment. That's according to a new poll from NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. NPR's Chris Arnold reports.

CHRIS ARNOLD, BYLINE: About a year ago, Gustavo Douaihi and Laura Smith were looking to find a house to rent. They live in Baton Rouge, La. He's a geologist, and he's from Venezuela. She's a high school English teacher and grew up in Alabama. And they'd just gotten married.

GUSTAVO DOUAIHI: We were living in this super, super, super tiny house. We had all of our wedding presents and just too many things in it.

ARNOLD: And one day they saw a bigger house in the neighborhood come up for rent.

LAURA SMITH: And when we saw the for rent sign, I pushed Gustavo to call and look into it.

DOUAIHI: I left a voicemail. I'd said my name is Gustavo. I live in the neighborhood, but I'm interested in moving into another home and that I was a young, married guy looking for a place to live.

ARNOLD: But he didn't hear back.

SMITH: He called her back a week later or something like that, and she didn't return his call.

ARNOLD: So after not hearing back twice...

DOUAIHI: I said, I don't want to make any assumptions here. But I was like, why don't you give them a call and see if you get a call back? And she left a message saying, you know, this is Laura; I live in the neighborhood - just kind of a similar message.

SMITH: And when I called and said my name which sounds very white, the woman texted me back, like, within five minutes.

DOUAIHI: And we just kind of looked at each other. And I kind of started, you know, laughing. Hey, this kind of stuff happens all the time. But she got really upset.

SMITH: I had a much stronger reaction. I was livid. The only different information she had between the two voicemails were our names. His first name is Gustavo, which is a Hispanic name. And I was horrified.

ARNOLD: According to our poll, about one-third of Latino respondents said they had experienced some form of housing discrimination at some point in their lives. That's a striking number, but...

STEPHEN ROSS: This happens much less than it used to.

ARNOLD: Stephen Ross is an economist at the University of Connecticut. He's done research where pairs of so-called testers - white, black, Latino researchers - pose as people looking for a home. He says in the year 2000, a study found that nearly 7 percent of the time, Latinos were told that apartments were not available to rent when in fact they were, and white people were shown the units. But 12 years later, that happened only 2 percent of the time - a big improvement. That's not to say that he thinks that discrimination isn't the problem anymore.

ROSS: I know every month, the Fair - the Connecticut Fair Housing Center in Connecticut finds clear evidence of discrimination and takes those landlords to court.

ARNOLD: But Ross says over the past 30 years, enforcement efforts like this around the country have made a real impact. Still, even if it's less common these days, when it does happen, housing discrimination can be damaging and in some ways that you might not expect. Dr. Megan Sandel is a pediatrician and researcher at Boston Medical Center.

MEGAN SANDEL: A safe, decent, affordable apartment can act like a vaccine. It can keep you healthy now and in the future.

ARNOLD: Sandel says she's not just talking about, is there a lead paint or toxins in the house? But is the neighborhood safe? Are the schools good? What are the norms expected of young people? Do they go to college?

SANDEL: And that has huge implications for your income and ultimately your life expectancy. Your ZIP code may be more important to your health than your genetic code.

ARNOLD: Sandel's hospital is in Roxbury. It's a lower-income neighborhood in Boston with a large minority population.

SANDEL: Right outside of our door here at Boston Medical Center, the average life expectancy is 58 years. You travel three miles down to the Back Bay, and the life expectancy is 91 years. And so we know that that is based on your environment.

ARNOLD: Likewise, kids are more likely to have higher stress and more health problems in lower-income neighborhoods like this. So Sandel says if Latinos and other ethnic groups are being discriminated against and more end up in troubled neighborhoods...

SANDEL: That's wrong, and we need to think about ways in which to solve it.

ARNOLD: For their part, Gustavo Douaihi and Laura Smith bought a bigger house this past spring. But Gustavo says when the topic comes up, Laura still gets upset about it even more than he does.

DOUAIHI: She hasn't stopped telling her family and her friends about it. And she's on my side, which is great (laughter).

ARNOLD: Chris Arnold, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.