Real estate agents steer people of color to neighborhoods with heavier pollution, study finds

Housing options given to minorities are disproportionately lower in environmental quality than for white buyers.

In Baton Rouge, Louisiana, a house sits near the Mississippi River and many chemical plants in an area known as "cancer alley." CREDIT: Giles Clarke/Getty Images
In Baton Rouge, Louisiana, a house sits near the Mississippi River and many chemical plants in an area known as "cancer alley." CREDIT: Giles Clarke/Getty Images

Minority homebuyers are systematically steered to neighborhoods with higher concentrations of toxic contamination and pollution than their white counterparts, according to a new study that looks at potential discrimination faced by people of color when working with real estate agents.

The study’s results confirm observations made by environmental justice experts over the past few decades about the correlations between race and pollution. The literature on environmental justice has demonstrated evidence that minority households are more likely to be exposed to a range of toxics and other pollutants.

In the study, the authors found people of color are often presented with housing options that are disproportionately lower in environmental quality than are those given to similar white buyers.

“These results are the first that we know of to demonstrate housing discrimination by real estate agents to pollution exposures and to a range of other economic disadvantages,” Peter Christensen, a professor of economics at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign and one of the authors of the study, told ThinkProgress in an email on Monday.


Christensen and Christopher Timmins, a professor of economics at Duke University, prepared the study — “Sorting or Steering: Experimental Evidence on the Economic Effects of Housing Discrimination” — for the National Bureau of Economic Research, an independent economic research group based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

One of the most pernicious forms of discrimination for people of color has been housing segregation. A particularly egregious practice — known as “redlining” — occurred from 1934 to 1968 when the New Deal-era Federal Housing Administration sought to make homeownership accessible to white people but explicitly refused to back loans to black people or other people who lived near black people.

Housing discrimination became illegal under the Fair Housing Act of 1968. Blatant forms of discrimination include denial of appointments with a housing provider or refusal to show an advertised house. Less blatant forms include disparities in the number of houses shown or in the condition of the houses that are recommended.

In an emailed statement to ThinkProgress, the National Association of Realtors (NAR) said it strongly supports the Fair Housing Act.


“We welcome thoughtful studies to help better understand how discriminatory practices impact markets,” NAR said. “While NAR doesn’t address reports of fair housing allegations directly, we do affirm our fair housing commitments, as well as the rights of those accused of discrimination to challenge and defend themselves against those allegations.”

The trade group said it works with state and local realtor associations to offer member training about fair housing issues.

The new study adds to a large amount of literature on housing discrimination, including the practice of steering people of color into certain neighborhoods. In their research, the authors looked at how people of color are often shown houses in communities that are closer to toxic sites and have higher levels of air pollution.

“We find that holding locational preferences or income constant, discriminatory steering alone may contribute substantially to the disproportionate number of minority households found in high poverty neighborhoods in the United States,” the authors explain. “The steering effect is also large enough to fully explain the differential in proximity to Superfund sites among African American mothers.”

The authors used data from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) most recent housing discrimination study and micro-level data on key attributes of neighborhoods in 28 U.S. cities. They found “strong evidence” of discrimination in the characteristics of neighborhoods towards which individuals are steered.

The HUD study’s methodology matches minority with white “testers” — actors who are assigned attributes that make them equally qualified to purchase a particular house. Assuming that the testers follow their script, the design of the HUD study has explicit controls to ensure the participants demonstrate comparable financial means as well as a range of different factors that might affect the behavior of real estate agents.

The researchers of the new study looked at data on white, African American, Asian, and Hispanic households. Information about the recommended homes to these groups was merged with information about local pollution sources from monitoring programs conducted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).


The researchers measured the number of Superfund sites within a five-kilometer radius of the home. They also looked at the risk of exposure to industrial chemical releases from facilities monitored by the EPA’s Toxics Release Inventory and particulate matter.

“Considering all minority groups as a whole, we see statistically significant differences in the proximity to Superfund sites and air toxics relative to the houses recommended to white testers,” the study says.

Neighborhoods with higher pollution exposures tend to be more affordable. The solution would be to address the gap in income and affordable housing, Christensen told ThinkProgress. But that would require a fundamental change in how policymakers look at housing and income, he said.

For their study, though, the authors concluded that housing discrimination itself can explain substantial differences in exposures to toxic pollution. This finding suggests a very specific and direct role for fair housing laws in addressing environmental justice issues, Christensen noted.

Christensen said the study also suggests a role for more explicit consideration of how to better regulate steering behavior. The study points to the importance of other possible interventions and programs that might help mitigate the effects of steering, such as educating real estate agents about the illegal practice and informing buyers to be on the lookout for it.