Some people have an easier time finding an apartment than others, and it has nothing to do with their ability to pay rent.
According to a new Zillow analysis, renters of color are disproportionately more likely than white renters to pay an application fee when they are searching for a new home, even when researchers controlled for age, income and other factors.
"I think there's no getting away from the possibility that some of this disparate impact originates from prejudice or suspicion or a greater sense of risk from certain types of renters who don't look like them," said Jeff Tucker, an economist with Zillow.
According to the real estate analytics company, four in five Asian renters and three in four blacks and Latinos pay application fees compared to slightly more than half of white renters.
Zillow's research was national in scope. But, Tucker said, particularly in tight housing markets like the Bay Area, renters often submit several applications or more before they land an apartment -- meaning what starts as a $50 application fee could multiply into several hundred dollars.
Even if landlords aren't explicitly or consciously discriminating against black, Latino and Asian renters, their actions can create barriers. For instance, if a landlord has "a lack of trust" of a potential tenant based on race, said Bay Area tenants' rights attorney Leah Simon-Weisberg, they might impose an application fee and look more thoroughly into the person, instead of thinking, "Oh, you fit into what I imagine a neighbor should look like."
Or, as Tucker put it, "It's a lot of people making judgment calls."
And there's often no clear way to control those calls. Still, some places are taking steps to prevent upfront costs, if not to explicitly limit discrimination. Massachusetts, for instance, bans application fees or credit check fees altogether -- although some companies seem to flout the rules. New York recently effectively barred broker's fees, but a lawsuit almost immediately put that ban on hold.
Implementing a ban on application fees in California, said Michael Trujillo, a staff attorney with the Law Foundation of Silicon Valley, "would be ideal."
Merika Reagan, a black resident of Oakland, Calif., and a member of the anti-displacement group ACCE, isn't shocked by the findings.