The Discrimination Test: How We Detect Bias Against Voucher Holders

This is the second of a three-part series focusing on Source of Income (SOI) discrimination in the Chicago metropolitan area. For more information on our SOI series,  contact Communications Associate Timna Axel at 312-888-4194.

On any given weekday, 59-year old Barbara* teaches science to a classroom of middle schoolers. But in her spare time, Barbara does something unusual: She calls up housing providers and tells them she is looking for housing. In fact, Barbara is a fair housing tester for the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights.
The Chicago Lawyers’ Committee has a pool of about 33 testers and conducts roughly 140 tests every year. Generally, two testers are matched in their personal characteristics and housing needs, so that the only significant difference is their membership or non-membership in a protected class such as race, national origin, familial status, physical or mental disability, sexual orientation, or source of income (SOI).
Josefina Navar, Testing Coordinator at the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee, explains that fair housing testing is a controlled method for uncovering discrimination in housing:
“Basically testers are kind of like secret shoppers [...] for instance, if we were doing a test to see differences based on race, we would use a white tester and a black tester to ask a housing provider about availability and terms and conditions, and they write objective reports about what actually occurred. It’s then the coordinator’s job to review those reports and determine if there were differences in treatment.”
Often, a round of testing is triggered by reports of discrimination. When real estate agents throw up obstacles such as income requirements, minimum credit score, or security deposits, those can be red flags for discrimination. Navar warns that there are often more subtle forms of discrimination, in which “people might not even realize they’re being discriminated against.” For example, housing providers often engage in ‘steering,’ where an applicant is encouraged to look in different areas, limiting their housing choices.
“Most of the time the blatant discrimination we see is based on SOI – vouchers,” says Navar.

“I’ve had a tester have doors slammed in her face. We’ve actually had a provider tell an African American female who was interested in renting on the north side that she 'spread her wings a few blocks south' if she wants to use her voucher.”
A testing coordinator will either assign tests based on complaints, or when they want to survey whether property owners are denying or misrepresenting housing based on a protected class. It is each tester’s task to then contact the housing provider by phone or visit the site and inquire about the availability, terms and conditions and other services related to the housing. The testing coordinator does not discuss what they’re looking for with the testers to make sure they their judgment isn’t clouded.
“The hardest part of testing is really to just report what happened – not how you felt about it, not how you thought they felt, just what happened,” says Barbara.
Of course, not all tests show problems, and only a small percentage of tests reveal discrimination. Testers are trained to be objective reporters, undergoing an extensive training session and then a practice test. Testers are often recruited from community organizations, colleges and universities, and other referrals. Though they receive a small stipend for their work, most testers have a genuine interest and see the value in fair housing tests.
Testing has roots in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s, with Martin Luther King citing it in his fair housing work. In 1982, the Supreme Court further sanctioned testing as a method to uncover discrimination and ensure that housing providers comply with fair housing laws. Today, testing conducted by the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee has uncovered patterns of SOI discrimination on the city’s northwest side, and in the southwest and northwest suburbs as well.
From May to July 2015, the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee supervised 50 matched pair tests in North, Northwest, West, and Southwest suburban Cook County using African-American and Caucasian testers. The testing revealed that housing providers discriminated against tenants based on voucher status 32 percent of the time. In 18 percent of the tests, housing providers discriminated against African-American voucher holders but not white voucher holders.
Barbara says she doesn’t think testing is for everyone. But she enjoys the challenge of separating her emotions from the detailed notes she takes every time she simulates a housing visit.
“It’s a good feeling to know you’re helping people to be able to be treated fairly in one of the most important decisions they’re going to make in their life.”
To inquire about becoming a tester with the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee, please contact Josefina Navar at
*A pseudonym has been used to protect the identity of the fair housing tester