Does the neighbourhood of the dwelling and the real estate agency matter? Geographical differences in ethnic discrimination on the rental housing market.

Blog post by Billie Martiniello and Pieter-Paul Verhaeghe

11 May 2022, 2:06 p.m.
Billie Martiniello and Pieter-Paul Verhaeghe



Ethnic discrimination is a wide-spread phenomenon that has many disadvantages for the targeted groups but also for society as a whole. Discrimination is defined as the unequal and adverse treatment of certain individuals or groups based on a feature protected by law. In this article, we specifically focus on ethnic discrimination on the rental housing market. Not only is the access to quality housing considered as a human right, it is also an important characteristic affecting the inclusion of migrants and ethnic minorities in society.

Many studies in differing contextual locations have described systemic discrimination towards ethnic minorities. In this study, we aim to find some explanations for this recurring phenomenon, by focusing on the local context where the discrimination is occurring. Contexts are decisive for the way actors behave and make decisions. Previous research has already shown that, regardless of the systemic nature of discrimination, the levels can vary between cities and municipalities.

With this study, we contribute to the existing literature in three ways: (1) we focus on two types of local contexts, namely the neighbourhood of the dwellings and the neighbourhoods of the real estate agencies, (2) besides paying attention to the ethnic composition of those neighbourhoods (= the share of ethnic minorities), we also take into account their socio-economic composition (= the fiscal revenue and the percentage of social housings) and (3) we broaden the debate again away from a focus on the economic theories of statistical and taste-based discrimination, by applying other more neglected theories with regard to rental discrimination.

Based on our analysis, it appears that the context – and thus the neighbourhood characteristics - of the dwelling matters more for the measured discrimination than that of the real estate agency. We find that when about one-third of the inhabitants in the neighbourhood of the dwelling are of non-Belgian descent, ethnic discrimination decreases. We ascribe these findings to the customer-based prejudice and the perceived preference hypothesis, which assumes realtors to take the perceived residential preferences of their customers into account. The latter contains the perception that the ethnic majority prefers to live in homogenous neighbourhoods and ethnic minorities in mixed neighbourhoods.  

Besides, when about half of the inhabitants in the neighbourhood of the dwelling and the real estate agency are of non-Belgian origin, the general invitation rates (= the invitation rates for all candidates) to visit a dwelling drop. Additionally, the socio-economic composition seems to only be relevant with regard to the location of the dwellings: a higher prosperity is related to higher general invitation rates. These findings are ascribed to the hunkering down hypothesis, which states that, with an increase in ethnic minorities in a neighbourhood, citizens trust less, have less friends and both altruism and community cooperation decreases. We, however, argue that not only the ethnic composition, but also the socio-economic composition can lead citizens to “hunker down”.


Read the accompanying article on Urban Studies OnlineFirst here.



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