Renters with foreign-sounding names receive fewer callbacks from landlords

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GOTHENBURG, Sweden — Finding a decent place to rent at an affordable rate feels more elusive than ever nowadays. Unfortunately, new research suggests immigrants have an even harder time than locals, at least in Sweden. Scientists at the University of Gothenburg report that male applicants with foreign-sounding names get fewer callbacks from landlords screening potential tenants in comparison to others with a Swedish sounding last name.

To collect this data, study authors sent out fake applications featuring various made-up names to legitimate local housing ads.

Numerous prior studies conducted all over the world indicate that ethnic discrimination is fairly commonplace in many, many housing markets. This can produce serious side-effects, such as unequal opportunities in labor markets. Ethnic discrimination has already been documented in the Swedish housing market, but earlier studies had focused only on Swedish and Arab/Muslim-sounding names. Moreover, recent years have seen the Swedish housing market experience both increased demand and more immigrants looking for a place to rent.

So, in an effort to better understand current ethnic discrimination trends in the Swedish housing market, researchers found 620 real local apartment ads. For each ad, two randomly selected fake applications were mailed out. Importantly, every single application sent out by the team described the applicant as being both highly educated and “well-behaved.” The only difference among applications was the name. These fake male apartment seekers signaled one of four ethnic backgrounds: Swedish, Eastern European, East Asian, or Arab/Muslim. Once the applications were sent, the team just waited to hear back from the landlords.

After conducting a statistical analysis on all of the collected landlord callback data, study authors report applicants with a Swedish-sounding name received far more callbacks than any other ethnicity. Meanwhile, applications with an Eastern European or East Asian sounding name received about the same number of callbacks, and applicants with Arabic/Muslim-sounding name garnered the fewest callbacks.

In conjunction with earlier Swedish studies, these findings suggest the Swedish housing market hasn’t gotten any easier over the past 10 years for Arabic/Muslim renters. The team at UG are hopeful their work can help better inform national efforts to reduce housing discrimination across their nation. They suggest further research be conducted on discrimination toward female rental applicants.

“Eastern European-, East Asian-, and especially Arab/Muslim-sounding names yielded significantly lower callback rates than names signaling membership of the dominant ethnic group – ethnic Swedes. Comparisons with the Ahmed et al. (2010) paper show that the situation for a male person with an Arabic/Muslim-sounding name has not improved in Sweden over the past decade,” study authors write.

The study is published in PLoS ONE.