‘Muhammad’ less likely than ‘David’ to get a positive response, Guardian investigation finds
• How we carried out the survey
Haroon Siddique and Pamela Duncan
Mon 3 Dec 2018
Minority ethnic groups have long faced discrimination in the housing market. Photograph: Martin Argles for the Guardian
People from ethnic minorities face arbitrary discrimination when they look for a room to rent, experts have said, after a Guardian investigation found that inquiries from a person with a Muslim name about flatshare ads received significantly fewer positive responses.
In a snapshot survey of the private flatshare market carried out as part of the Bias in Britain series, expressions of interest were sent from “Muhammad” and “David” to almost 1,000 online advertisements for rooms across the UK.
The Guardian found that for every 10 positive replies David received, Muhammad received only eight.
Muhammad was doubly disadvantaged compared with David as he was more likely not to receive a response (44% of the time compared with 36%), and when he did receive a response it was more likely to be negative (25% of the time compared with 18%).
While the survey gives only a momentary view of the situation across five areas in the UK, charities, pressure groups and the Residential Landlords Association (RLA) all said the findings were illustrative of persistent bias in the housing market – whether conscious or unconscious. The RLA described the findings as “disturbing” and said a government requirement on landlords to check tenants’ immigration status was compounding the problem.
Minority ethnic groups have long faced discrimination in the housing market: in the 1950s, some adverts for properties specified “no blacks, no Irish, no dogs”. Such explicit discrimination is largely in the past, although last year a landlord was taken to court after he barred people from south Asian backgrounds from renting his properties because of “curry smells”.
But experts say the Guardian’s findings are a reminder that subtler forms of bias remain and have significant consequences.
What is unconscious bias, and why is the Guardian reporting on it?
Kevin Gulliver, the director of the Human City Institute, a charity and thinktank focusing on exclusion, social injustice and inequality, said: “This is a timely study. BAME communities are more reliant on the private rented sector – 24%, compared with 14% of white people. Having equal access to the rented sector is very important.
“Society is generally less racist than it was in the 1950s but that doesn’t mean more subtle versions of racism don’t exist. People sort of justify it to themselves, assuming someone from that community might not fit into the block. This sort of study shows it is prevalent, and Brexit, Trump etc could have given permission for previously hidden racism to emerge.”
The Guardian set up online profiles giving Muhammad and David similar ages, interests and occupations. Expressions of interest, similar in tone and length, were sent responding to adverts posted for rooms in properties listed in Aberdeen, Devon, Leicester, London and Sunderland. The advertisers were private individuals – either housemates, flatmates, live-in or live-out landlords.
It is impossible to know whether any one case is the result of prejudice, but experts in unconscious bias say it can shape people’s responses without them being aware of it. And the snapshot survey found other evidence of a difference in outcomes for the two names.
In 23 instances, David received a positive or neutral reply inviting him for a viewing and Muhammad received a negative reply saying the room had been taken or was unsuitable for him.
A live-in landlady in Leicester replied to Muhammad: “Hi the ad says females only sorry.” By contrast, her response to David was: “Hi David thanks for getting in touch. Let me know when you want to view it.”
Another live-in landlady, this time in Aberdeen, told Muhammad her last room was taken but told David she had one or possibly two rooms free.
There were no occasions where Muhammad got a positive response and David got a negative one, and only one where Muhammad received a neutral response while David was rejected.
There were three times as many instances where David received a positive response and Muhammad got no reply than vice-versa.
Harun Khan, the secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain, said: “Merely having a name such as Muhammad should play no role in the provision of services open to the public. It would be shocking were the structural racism not already the lived experience of many Muslims, with Islamophobia already normalised in many sections of our society.
“This provides yet more evidence that Islamophobia is far broader than mere anti-Muslim hatred, and it is imperative that the government develops a strategy to tackle the structural racism facing Muslims, over and above its newly updated hate crime action plan.”
In some instances David received an unambiguous invitation to view the room in question while Muhammad was asked for more information (responses recorded by the Guardian as neutral), whether it be about his personality or job status.
Additionally, Muhammad was subjected on occasion to assumptions about his background or status. One live-in landlord in the Sunderland search wrote in reply: “What country are you from? Are you a student? If student what do u study? How long do you want the room for?”
A reply from a woman in Aberdeen read: “Hi Mohammed [sic], room still available but not keen on taking someone from the fish factory.”
David Smith, RLA policy director, said: “We are very disturbed by the findings of this exercise. No landlord should arbitrarily discriminate against any prospective tenant on any basis. There are laws that apply to rightly protect people from discrimination and we would not defend any landlord who wilfully contravenes these.
“Sadly, such prejudices are being compounded by the government’s right to rent policy [which requires landlords to carry out immigration checks] and its wider hostile environment approach to immigration.”
There was no clear link between the size of the Muslim population in the areas studied and the nature of the responses.
Rebecca Hilsenrath, the chief executive of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, said: “Prejudice is still a very real problem in Britain and these findings demonstrate that it is having a significant impact on how real people behave and interact with others. Choosing a housemate is a personal decision and there are lots of reasons which play into it. As a barometer of today’s society we should sit up and take notice if people are choosing who they live with based on where people come from, what they might look like and what they might believe.
“We know that elements of public dialogue foster prejudice and discrimination against Muslim people. We need to recognise the extent of that and build opportunities for sensible discussions to tackle prejudice to prevent an increased divide in society.”
The government’s racial disparity audit has shown that minorities are more likely to live in overcrowded, inadequate and fuel-poor housing. They are also over-concentrated in the most deprived neighbourhoods and their homes are less likely to have safety features such as fire alarms.
Additional reporting by Katrine Schow Madsen, Omar Garrick, Matthew Hanrahan and Rachel Obordo