Translated by: Translators for Justice
By Rita Nikolow
Discrimination is difficult to prove, but, as the German media service for integration (Mediendienst Integration) reports, one method from the USA brings such unequal treatment to light. Using this method, many studies conducted in Germany have shown that immigrants looking for housing are often dealt an unfair hand.
Of course, it could actually be true that a tenant has already been found or that the landlord has chosen to use the space himself. In many cases, however, the rejection has another reason: the Turkish last name or the East-European accent of the applicant. Stories like this are nothing new for the Dortmund-based Planerladen, a non-profit association working to promote democratic town planning and area-based community work. Since 2009, the organization has also served as a contact point for those affected by housing discrimination.
A few years ago, the Dortmund Planerladen team decided to conduct their own study about discrimination in the housing market. They used a method called “paired testing”, in use in the USA since the 70s to study discrimination against African-Americans and Hispanics. The method requires two people, who resemble each other in almost every respect, to apply for an apartment. The only differences: where they come from, their skin color or that one has a German name and the other does not.
According to the Planerladen team, the results of the first study were “alarming”. For the 2007 study, the team applied to 150 online housing offers; each landlord received an email from two applicants, both identical and written in proper German. One applicant had a German name, the other, Turkish. The results:
· 56 percent of the landlords replied to the German as well as the “Turkish” applicant.
· 42 percent, however, only replied to the German applicant. Almost half of the emails sent from the “Turkish” applicant went unanswered.
Anti-Discrimination Law Filled with Loopholes
Christine Lüders from the German Federal Anti-Discrimination Agency (ADS) confirms, “Discrimination in the housing market is, in our experience, a substantial and often underestimated problem.” For those who experience discrimination, it is extremely difficult to prove whether a landlord’s decision was discriminatory or not. According to the General Equal Treatment Act (AGG), there must be evidence that would lead one to suspect that a rent contract was not entered into based on the prejudice of the landlord. “In many cases, that is not easy to prove,” says Lüders. Thus, in 2010 the ADS released a report by experts that contained tips about how to use testing procedures in order to take legal action.
Up until now, there has been one successful lawsuit filed by a black couple that was not allowed to view an apartment based on the color of their skin. Other such lawsuits, though, are few and far between. One reason could simply be the legal situation in Germany: the anti-discrimination provisions of the General Equal Treatment Act do not apply to landlords who rent spaces in their “immediate surrounding areas”, for example, in the house or building they themselves occupy (§ 19 Par. 3). In cases where the Act does apply, a refusal to rent is not considered discrimination “where they serve to create and maintain stable social structures regarding inhabitants and balanced settlement structures, as well as balanced economic, social and cultural conditions”. Consequently, proving that a refusal is based on ethnic origins or skin color is exceptionally difficult.
Turkish Applicant Accepted Only in Neukölln
According to the German Anti-Discrimination Agency, there has been little research done on the extent of the discrimination in the housing market. One of the few studies in this area was conducted by sociologist Emsal Kılıç. In her 2008 thesis, “Discrimination against Immigrants Searching for Housing”, she used the same testing method that Planerladen introduced in Germany. Her three-stage thesis study, written for the Department of City and Regional Sociology at the Humboldt University in Berlin, also used fictitious test subjects, which both provided the same personal information. Only their last names differed¾one was German, the other, Turkish.
In the first stage of the study, both test subjects responded to housing ads posted on an online platform. Each test subject sent 100 emails to landlords in the Berlin districts of Wilmersdorf and Neukölln (Neukölln has the highest percentage of immigrants in Berlin). The German test subject received six offers in Wilmersdorf and one refusal; the Turkish, six refusals and no offers. In the Neukölln district, on the other hand, the Turkish subject was able to get 11 offers and four refusals, and the German subject got 13 offers and two refusals.
For the second stage of the study, the same two fictitious test subjects responded to the offers they received from Neukölln. At this point, a viewing of the apartments was to be arranged over the telephone. The German applicant received nine viewing appointments. Only four of those nine were also offered to the Turkish applicant.
Unfair Play in the Housing Market
The last stage of the study was a face-to-face meeting. During the visit, the Turkish applicant was questioned about her personal situation¾whether she had a job and about her household income. The German applicant was asked no questions, but rather received helpful tips about other apartments on the market, and, in the end, came home with offers to rent four apartments. The Turkish applicant came home completely empty-handed.
Emsal Kılıç concluded from her study results that for immigrants to access “better” housing arrangements through a normal application process is “in effect, impossible”. Even in districts with many immigrants (such as Neukölln), German applicants receive preferential treatment.
The Planerladen in Dortmund intends to lead by example in the fight against discrimination: Since 2011, landlords in Dortmund can apply to the Planerladen for an “Equal-Opportunity Rental Organization” seal. Random testing is used to ensure that the landlords actually adhere to the housing application rules. “Up until now, we have awarded the seal to two landlords,” said Regina Hermanns from the Planerladen integration team. The first was the ITW company, which owns 20 apartment complexes that house people from 17 different countries in Dortmund’s Nordstadt district. Sigrid Czyrt and Volder Töbel, a couple who rent seven apartments to people from six different countries, were also awarded the seal.