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Buying or renting a home in a place where you want to live is a bedrock part of the American experience. But 31 percent of Latinos report experiencing discrimination when looking for a house or an apartment. That's according to a new poll from NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. NPR's Chris Arnold reports.
CHRIS ARNOLD, BYLINE: About a year ago, Gustavo Douaihi and Laura Smith were looking to find a house to rent. They live in Baton Rouge, La. He's a geologist, and he's from Venezuela. She's a high school English teacher and grew up in Alabama. And they'd just gotten married.
GUSTAVO DOUAIHI: We were living in this super, super, super tiny house. We had all of our wedding presents and just too many things in it.
ARNOLD: And one day they saw a bigger house in the neighborhood come up for rent.
LAURA SMITH: And when we saw the for rent sign, I pushed Gustavo to call and look into it.
DOUAIHI: I left a voicemail. I'd said my name is Gustavo. I live in the neighborhood, but I'm interested in moving into another home and that I was a young, married guy looking for a place to live.
ARNOLD: But he didn't hear back.
SMITH: He called her back a week later or something like that, and she didn't return his call.
ARNOLD: So after not hearing back twice...
DOUAIHI: I said, I don't want to make any assumptions here. But I was like, why don't you give them a call and see if you get a call back? And she left a message saying, you know, this is Laura; I live in the neighborhood - just kind of a similar message.
SMITH: And when I called and said my name which sounds very white, the woman texted me back, like, within five minutes.
DOUAIHI: And we just kind of looked at each other. And I kind of started, you know, laughing. Hey, this kind of stuff happens all the time. But she got really upset.
SMITH: I had a much stronger reaction. I was livid. The only different information she had between the two voicemails were our names. His first name is Gustavo, which is a Hispanic name. And I was horrified.
ARNOLD: According to our poll, about one-third of Latino respondents said they had experienced some form of housing discrimination at some point in their lives. That's a striking number, but...
STEPHEN ROSS: This happens much less than it used to.
ARNOLD: Stephen Ross is an economist at the University of Connecticut. He's done research where pairs of so-called testers - white, black, Latino researchers - pose as people looking for a home. He says in the year 2000, a study found that nearly 7 percent of the time, Latinos were told that apartments were not available to rent when in fact they were, and white people were shown the units. But 12 years later, that happened only 2 percent of the time - a big improvement. That's not to say that he thinks that discrimination isn't the problem anymore.
ROSS: I know every month, the Fair - the Connecticut Fair Housing Center in Connecticut finds clear evidence of discrimination and takes those landlords to court.
ARNOLD: But Ross says over the past 30 years, enforcement efforts like this around the country have made a real impact. Still, even if it's less common these days, when it does happen, housing discrimination can be damaging and in some ways that you might not expect. Dr. Megan Sandel is a pediatrician and researcher at Boston Medical Center.
MEGAN SANDEL: A safe, decent, affordable apartment can act like a vaccine. It can keep you healthy now and in the future.
ARNOLD: Sandel says she's not just talking about, is there a lead paint or toxins in the house? But is the neighborhood safe? Are the schools good? What are the norms expected of young people? Do they go to college?
SANDEL: And that has huge implications for your income and ultimately your life expectancy. Your ZIP code may be more important to your health than your genetic code.
ARNOLD: Sandel's hospital is in Roxbury. It's a lower-income neighborhood in Boston with a large minority population.
SANDEL: Right outside of our door here at Boston Medical Center, the average life expectancy is 58 years. You travel three miles down to the Back Bay, and the life expectancy is 91 years. And so we know that that is based on your environment.
ARNOLD: Likewise, kids are more likely to have higher stress and more health problems in lower-income neighborhoods like this. So Sandel says if Latinos and other ethnic groups are being discriminated against and more end up in troubled neighborhoods...
SANDEL: That's wrong, and we need to think about ways in which to solve it.
ARNOLD: For their part, Gustavo Douaihi and Laura Smith bought a bigger house this past spring. But Gustavo says when the topic comes up, Laura still gets upset about it even more than he does.
DOUAIHI: She hasn't stopped telling her family and her friends about it. And she's on my side, which is great (laughter).
ARNOLD: Chris Arnold, NPR News.
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