Misrepresenting Discrimination: How Much Discrimination Do Gays and Lesbians Face in the Housing Market?

Last week, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) released its first-ever study of housing market discrimination against same-sex couples. Conducted by Samantha Friedman, a sociologist at the University of Albany, the study used a series of paired email tests to determine whether landlords posting online ads for rental apartments treat heterosexual and same-sex couples differently.

News outlets across the country picked up the historic study, reporting preferential treatment for heterosexual couples over gay male couples and lesbian couples. Writing in the Washington Blade, Chris Johnson reported:

The findings: same-sex couples face unequal treatment compared to straight couples when responding to online ads for rental units. Also, the report found gay male couples experience more discrimination than lesbian couples. According to the study, straight couples were favored over gay male couples in 15.9 percent of tests and over lesbian couples in 15.6 percent of tests.

Similarly, on the website for ABC News, Alan Farnham wrote, "Straight couples were favored over gay male couples 15.9 percent of the time; straight couples were favored over lesbians 15.6 percent of the time, according to the study."

These numbers -- 15.9 percent and 15.6 percent -- were reported again and again in media coverage of the HUD study. While the numbers are true (they're in Tables 3 and 4 of the report), they deeply mischaracterize they study's findings. Reporting only these numbers tells a misleading story about the discrimination that same-sex couples face in the search for rental housing.

To test for discrimination, researchers sent paired emails to more than 6,000 online listings for rental apartments. In one email, the couple looking to rent an apartment was identified as a heterosexual couple. In the other, the couple was identified as a same-sex couple. Researchers observed whether these paired emails received the same responses from landlords, including whether both emails received a response in return, whether they were told that the apartment was available and whether they were invited to view the apartment.

When a heterosexual couple was paired with a gay male couple, both couples were treated similarly in the majority of cases. In fact, in 70.4 percent of cases, both couples -- the gay male couple and the heterosexual couple -- received the same response (or non-response) from the landlord. (Rates of equal treatment were even higher when a heterosexual couple was paired with a lesbian couple.)

In 15.9 percent of cases, the heterosexual couple received favorable treatment compared with the gay male couple. They either got a response that the gay male couple didn't get, were told that the apartment was available when the gay male couple was told it wasn't or were invited to inspect the apartment when the gay male couple wasn't invited to do so. That number -- 15.9 percent -- is the number reported most widely in the media (alongside the comparable statistics of 15.6 percent for lesbian couples).

But what about the other 13.7 percent of the cases? If heterosexual and gay male couples were treated the same 70.4 percent of the time and heterosexual couples were treated better 15.9 percent of the time, what happened in the remaining 13.7 percent of trials? In those trials, the gay male couple was treated more favorably. It was the gay male couple that was told that the apartment was available, received a response or was invited to view the apartment when the heterosexual couple was not.

Why did landlords treat gay male couples better 13.7 percent of the time -- in about one out of every eight cases? It's possible that one out of ever eight landlords prefers to rent apartments to gay male couples, although I imagine that's a hard story to convincingly tell. The more likely story is that their preferential treatment had nothing to do with the couple's same-sex status. Landlords get dozens of emails for each unit they advertise, and they may respond to some emails and not to others for reasons that are unrelated to the content of the email (e.g., the time it came in, where it is in the queue, how tired they are, etc.). At least for a good chunk of the cases where gay male couples were treated more favorably, their favorable treatment probably had nothing to do with their same-sex status.

And the same is true for the 15.9 percent of cases that favored heterosexual couples over gay male couples. Like the preferable treatment for a portion of the gay male couples, the preferable treatment for a good chunk of straight ones probably had nothing to do with their status as a heterosexual couple.

With this in mind, the important statistic from the HUD research is not 15.9 percent, as most media outlets have reported. Instead, it's 2.2 percent. That's the net difference (15.9-13.7) between cases favoring heterosexual couples and those favoring gay male couples. As a researcher, that's actually a better estimate of the percentage of cases where gay male couples were discriminated against because of their same-sex status.

So what's the impact of this finding for the stories that appeared in The Huffington Post, ABC News, the Washington Blade and countless other news sources? Does it change the way we should interpret the historic HUD study? In a very real way, it does.

Discrimination is discrimination, regardless of how frequently it occurs. But the magnitude matters. Discrimination in 2.2 percent of cases is very different from discrimination in 15.9 percent of cases. And for a society that still discriminates in legal rights between same-sex and heterosexual couples, we might actually read the small magnitude -- only 2.2 percent of cases -- as good news for the LGBT community.