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When the landlord doesn’t call back

A study in the National Capital Region shows why the search for a house is longer and more arduous for a Muslim tenant.

Written by Saugato Datta , Vikram Pathania |
Updated: June 4, 2016 12:01:37 am
(Illustration: C R  Sasikumar) About 35 per cent of the landlords call back the upper-caste Hindu applicants but only 22 per cent contact our fictitious Muslim applicants — in other words, upper-castes received responses from more than one-and-a-half times as many landlords. (Illustration: C R Sasikumar)

Earlier this month, this newspaper reported that a Muslim IAS aspirant in Pune resorted to a “Hindu” pseudonym to overcome the difficulty of obtaining paying-guest accommodation. Keen followers of the news from India, like us, recognise this as an example of periodic reports from cities across the country about the difficulties facing middle-class Muslims (not to mention the occasional film star) in the rental or property market.

This should disturb anyone who believes that people’s access to important things like housing, schooling, or jobs should not be determined by things over which they have no control, such as which community they were born into. At the same time, however, economists know that proving the existence of systematic discrimination in any market — whether housing or labour — requires more than anecdotes. How can we be sure that it was someone’s religion (or caste) rather than, say, whether they seemed a reliable tenant, that was behind the denial of housing in any one instance? And even if we were to concede that there was discrimination in a specific case, how widespread is this sort of thing?

Answering such questions is difficult. Ideally, we would want to see how landlords treat two tenants, identical in every respect except the dimension we care about (for example, their religion), as they apply to the same properties in exactly the same way. We wouldn’t want them to differ, for example, in the kind of job they had, or how they dressed, or what they said when they applied for a flat. If we could do this repeatedly, we could say with some confidence that any differences we observe between how landlords treat our two tenants are driven by the one difference between our two applicants — their religion.

These stringent conditions are unlikely to be met with real people. However, we can come close by using what are known as “audit experiments”, where researchers send identical applications to a large number of advertisements, and track the responses. This allows for measurement of systematic discrimination: what happens on average rather than in any individual case. This is what we decided to do for the National Capital Region rental market.

Last summer, we set up names, email addresses and phone numbers for four fictitious potential tenants: one upper-caste Hindu, one OBC, one SC, and one Muslim. Over the course of several months, we applied to a wide cross-section of flats offered for rent in Delhi and its surrounding suburbs, Noida and Gurgaon through an online property portal. Because we were simply submitting expressions of interest through the portal, all that a landlord saw was the applicant’s name, phone number, and email address. We chose names for our fictitious tenants to clearly signal their religion and caste. Every landlord we selected received four applications — one from each of our fictitious tenants. Then we tracked landlord response rates to our fictitious tenants.

About 35 per cent of the landlords call back the upper-caste Hindu applicants but only 22 per cent contact our fictitious Muslim applicants — in other words, upper-castes received responses from more than one-and-a-half times as many landlords. Another way of looking at these results is that a Muslim applicant needs to apply for around 45 flats before he can expect to hear from 10 landlords, an upper-caste Hindu applicant needs to only apply for 29 flats to have the same number of landlords contact him.

These are big differences. Even an upper caste Hindu tenant has to search for a while to find a suitable property. But Muslim tenants face a real possibility of none or very few callbacks. They would have to search for much longer, and compromise on location, price and quality. When supply is tight, as it often is, this could mean having to wait months to find a suitable place.

There appears to be some good news — we don’t find discrimination against OBC and SC applicants. Unfortunately, we are not confident about this finding. Our method relies on landlords figuring out what “group” a potential tenant belongs to based on his name. While we are sure that almost all landlords recognise a Muslim name, we are not sure that they recognise SC names as readily.

A callback from a landlord does not mean a flat is being offered. So, it is possible that the extent of differential treatment is quite different when it comes to looking at whether someone actually gets a flat (it could be worse). Also, just because we studied the market in the Delhi region doesn’t mean similar things don’t happen elsewhere. Indeed, this is a global problem — researchers have used similar methods in many European countries, and the United States government actually carries out similar studies in all large cities regularly in order to understand how bad the problem is and whether it’s getting better or worse.

What drives this discrimination against Muslim tenants? Certainly, blatant bias is one possibility. It could also be that vegetarian landlords are reluctant to rent to non-vegetarian tenants. In that case, people from traditionally meat-eating castes or regions may also be finding it harder to rent a flat. It’s also possible that landlords are making some guesses about people’s reliability as tenants based on their names — perhaps, they believe, rightly or wrongly, that a Muslim applicant is likely to earn less or be less well-educated than an upper-caste Hindu. We are currently exploring these ideas in an ongoing research.

We suspect that our results will simply evoke a sense of frustrated resignation for people — whether Muslims, single women, or people from the Northeast — who have been at the receiving end of discrimination. But hopefully, this research helps those who have not experienced discrimination in the housing market to get a sense of what those who have must feel like when their calls go unanswered or when a flat that was available just an hour ago mysteriously turns out to have been “rented” when they call — something they suspect is because of who they are rather than anything they have control over.

Saugato Datta is managing director, ideas42, a US-based behavioural design lab, and Vikram Pathania is with University of Sussex.

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