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Discrimination in access to housing in France: a review

Published in May 2022

By Sylvain Chareyron, Senior Lecturer in Economics, Université Paris-Est Créteil Val de Marne (UPEC), and , Yannick L’Horty, Economist and Professor, Université Gustave Eiffel

A landlord cannot refuse a tenant because of their ethnic origin, age, gender, sexual orientation or any other criteria prohibited by law. This would be an attack on the dignity of individuals and is contrary to the principle of equality. For this reason, discrimination is punishable under Article 225-2 of the French Criminal Code.

Despite this repressive framework, surveys by the Defender of Rights indicate that housing is perceived by almost one in two French people as one of the main areas of discrimination, following employment and police checks.Studies on the measurement of ethno-racial discrimination focus on the labour market. There are fewer studies dealing with access to housing, and they focus on private rental housing. They do allow us to assess the situation, however.

All these studies use the paired testing method, which consists of comparing the chances of success of two fictitious applicants who are similar in all respects except for the discrimination criterion being tested. Here, the researchers send two applications for each housing offer tested, which differ in the first and last names of the applicants.

An extensive review of this literature identified 29 studies that used this method in 15 different countries. And, according to this research, applicants who suggest their ethnic origin by a foreign-sounding surname are on average half as likely as the majority ethnic applicants to be invited to view rental accommodation.

Converging results in French data

In metropolitan France, four scientific studies have measured discrimination in the rental property market. The first two concluded that there is strong discrimination in access to housing, without interpreting the causes.

The other two studies also tested hypotheses for analysing the determining factors of discrimination. One measured the extent of discrimination in access to housing for applicants of North African origin in Paris between the beginning of April and the end of May 2016. Four messages requesting a visit to a property were sent in response to 504 property advertisements from individuals or rental agencies, for a total of 2016 requests.

The study concluded that discrimination against people of North African origin is high in access to housing in Paris and that it is not related to their supposed financial instability. The reference applicant of French origin had a response rate of 18.7% to their applications. For applicants of North African origin, the rate was 12.9%, meaning they were one third less likely to be successful. If the North African applicant specified that they were a civil servant, their response rate was 15.5%, which is lower than that of an applicant of French origin who does not mention their employment situation. When the applicant of French origin sent the same sign of stability, their response rate jumped to 42.9%. A sign of professional and financial stability greatly increases the chances of having access to housing only for applicants of French origin, which suggests strong discrimination linked to the preferences of individuals or rental agencies for applicants of French origin.

Finally, the study by economists Julie Le Gallo, Yannick L'Horty, Loïc du Parquet and Pascale Petit was based on a test covering the 50 largest urban areas in metropolitan France, for five grounds for discrimination: age, origin, place of residence and their combinations.

Between June and December 2016, five fictitious applications were sent in response to a selection of 5,000 rental advertisements in the private sector, throughout Metropolitan France, i.e. 100 advertisements per urban area and 25,000 responses to property advertisements. The authors were unable to identify any discrimination on the basis of the age of the tenant or his or her place of residence, but they did find significant discrimination on the basis of origin, which penalised applicants whose surnames and first names indicated a North African or sub-Saharan African origin. Compared to the reference applicant presumed to be of French origin, “Sébastien Petit”, the North African candidate “Mohamed Chettouh” was 26.7% less likely to be successful in accessing housing.

The authors also found that discrimination differs greatly between territories. It is most evident in a small number of urban areas which they list. Perpignan, Limoges, Avignon and Nancy top the rankings based on different indicators. The ten cities with the highest intensity of discrimination are neither the largest nor the smallest. None of them is a regional capital. All are prefectures or sub-prefectures. Their size is close to the median of large urban areas and they are scattered throughout Metropolitan France.

Discrimination restricts social mixing in neighbourhoods

Despite different sample sizes and methodologies, the results of these studies converge on several points. Discrimination is high in all the territories tested, against French applicants from sub-Saharan Africa as well as those from North Africa. It is stronger when the rental offer comes from a private individual but it is also significant for offers published by rental agencies. It is not very sensitive to the local degree of tension in the property market or to local prices. It is only slightly mitigated when the prospective tenant adds a sign of quality by stating that they are a civil servant.

Such discrimination is likely to have lasting consequences. People facing discrimination suffer high search costs and are limited in their choice of location, which restricts their residential mobility. These constraints can fuel urban segregation processes, restrict the social mixing of neighbourhoods and in turn penalise access to employment and training.

A complementary study was conducted in New Caledonia , one of the only territories in the French republican area, along with Polynesia, where ethnic statistics exist. In this territory, Kanak and Wallisian applicants are discriminated against in comparison with European applicants. The level of discrimination also varies according to the composition of the neighbourhood in which the housing is located: discrimination decreases significantly when the percentage of minorities exceeds 40%. The study suggests that there is a tipping point in the ethnic composition of neighbourhoods that may lead landlords to discriminate further to avoid this tipping point.

How can we fight against this discrimination?

A final study using paired testing provided an original answer. It evaluated the effect of a personal letter sent to rental agencies reminding them of the legal framework.

The study covered 343 rental agencies randomly divided into two groups. The first group received a reminder letter signed by the Defender of Rights informing them that they were being tested and reminding them of the legal framework and the sanctions to which they are liable. The second group did not receive the letter.

The evaluation involved testing all of these agencies over the two years following receipt of the letter. The results indicate that testing, which makes the threat of legal sanction credible, is a powerful way of reducing discrimination. It significantly reduced discrimination against the applicant from the minority group for two years after the letter was sent.

To our knowledge, this study is the only evaluation that rigorously shows that anti-discrimination action can be effective if it makes the application of the legal framework credible.

Identity card of the article

Original title:Discrimination in access to housing in France : a review

By Sylvain Chareyron and Yannick L’Horty

Publisher:The Conversation France
Collection:The Conversation France

The original version of the article was published in French by The Conversation France under Creative Commons license. An English version was created by Hancock & Hutton for Université Gustave Eiffel and was published by Reflexscience under the same license.

Date:August 10, 2022
Languages:English (a French version is available)
Keywords:Inequalities , discrimination , Economics , minorities , housing , racial discrimination , France