The HOPE Report is deeply flawed

Opinion: Columns

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By Jay Ruby

Let me preface these remarks by saying I believe Oak Park to be a unique social experiment in attempting to create and maintain a community where people from different ethnic backgrounds can successfully live together. Sadly, while the idea of battling segregation seems to no longer be a part of our national conversation, Oak Park remains committed to being a place of equality. Oak Park chose to be pro-active in accommodating the influx of black Americans. What may not be well understood is that the battle is not over and never will be.

I am certain some companies that manage rental units do, at times, discriminate against minorities. These companies should be exposed and punished. As I do not fully understand how rental units offered to people with disabilities are regulated, I will not comment on this aspect of the study.

Sadly, the HOPE Report is not a useful instrument to explore these problems as the design of the study contains some fundamental flaws that renders their conclusions suspect. A study like this one requires someone trained in social science research methods to design the study. 

In an examination of the staff at HOPE, I can find no one with this training. Their "Lending Analyst" who "conducts systemic investigations in the lending and/or housing arenas" has a degree in Urban Planning, a degree that does not usually include any training in the kind of social science research design required here. Perhaps the lack of trained personnel may account for the flaws in the research design I have noted. It is difficult to understand why the village who commissioned this study did not more fully examine the qualifications of the HOPE staff before hiring them.

The report claims, "Testing was initially made difficult by the overall unprofessional, poor customer service offered by rental representatives to potential housing consumers" (page 5). Nowhere in the report do they explain what constitutes "unprofessional, poor customer service" nor enumerate the frequency of this behavior. It seems strange that people hired to rent units would behave in a manner that would make their job more difficult. If potential renters are receiving poor service, they are less likely to rent the apartment, thus placing the rental representatives in a position of losing their jobs. 

There are a significant number of factors that could seriously affect the outcome of this study that were not discussed or included. Why? According to the report, "HOPE conducted 14 paired rental tests of eight different management companies offering rental units within the Village of Oak Park" (page 5). Nowhere do they explain the basis for selecting these management companies nor do they even define what they mean by "a management company." 

Rental units are offered by a variety of entities. Which ones were included and which were not and what was the basis for inclusion and exclusion? 

Would the owner/manager of a four-flat building where the owner lives in one unit and rents the other three qualify as a "management company"?

Was the Oak Park Residence Corporation or the Oak Park Regional Housing Center included as management companies? It would appear that these organizations are unlikely to discriminate. Why were they not included? 

Was a distinction made between those companies that have resident managers and those that do not? This could be a significant factor. 

Is the location of the rental unit relevant? I suspect rental units on the East and North borders of the village may be more likely to discriminate. HOPE again fails to explore that possibility.

Some rental properties are owned by people who live in Oak Park and others owned by people from other locales. It may be that owners from Oak Park have more of a stake in maintaining diversity in a community in which they live than those who have no interest in Oak Park other than as a place where they wish to maximize their profit. This could be a significant variable.

It is my contention that because HOPE failed to explain the basis of their selection of management companies and have apparently lumped all rental units and their management into one undifferentiated mass, the results of their research are therefore unreliable and their conclusions that "… there are ongoing instances of racial discrimination …" (page 5) is not supportable. 

It may be the case that "the level and egregiousness of the discrimination found in these tests were startling" (page 2). However, the basic flaws in this study means it is not possible to confirm or deny these conclusions.

The results of this study should not be used as the basis of any policy changes or any other actions on the part of the village board to deal with problems of discrimination. 

Jay Ruby, Ph.D., is emeritus professor of Anthropology at Temple University in Philadelphia, Penn.

Reader Comments

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Daniel Hurtado  

Posted: March 30th, 2014 8:42 AM

Sorry to jump in on this late, but Dan Lauber, can you tell me where I can access the full HOPE report? Thanks

OP Transplant  

Posted: March 23rd, 2014 5:53 PM

More importantly, is there a pattern of complaints about unfair housing practices in OP? I mean, by real renters, who are not paid to simulate acts of unfair housing practices?

Jim Bowman from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: March 22nd, 2014 8:15 PM

HOPE was investigating whether there's a pattern of discrimination, I gather. But its report did not establish this, Ruby argues, applying standards that seem reasonable. I don't get the academic-standard objection. Are Ruby's standards overly fine-tuned or what? What do academics want to establish that village trustees don't have to know in order to set the wheels of government in motion? This latter is at least as serious as what's at stake from an academic's report, it seems to me. But lesser standards suffice?

Dan Lauber from River Forest  

Posted: March 22nd, 2014 2:55 PM

HOPE's enforcement testing and research testing are different animals. Read the 11-page report to see its sound methodology and its disturbing findings rather than rely on news reports. There's nothing simulated in the discriminatory behavior of the rental agents. The courts have long accepted testing results because it offers a controlled test of landlord behavior with a single difference in each pair of testers namely the characteristic of a protected class under the Fair Housing Act.

OP Transplant  

Posted: March 21st, 2014 1:17 PM

"There's no flaw in the data gathering. I'd just prefer more tests." Why would you want more tests, if data has already been gathered flawlessly? Look, Dan, the process is that fake prospective tenants lie to renters to elicit a response. These are simulated acts of discrimination. The fact that the village has to simulate discrimination tells me that this is not a top-of-the-list problem. I'd view actual reports of discrimination against real renters very differently.

Dan Lauber from River Forest  

Posted: March 21st, 2014 12:17 PM

I am so tired of posters like OP Transplant putting words in my mouth. There's no flaw in the data gathering. I'd just prefer more tests. And to suggest that the results were assumed is simply unwarranted and highly irresponsible speculation worthy only of the made-up news on Fox News.

OP Transplant  

Posted: March 20th, 2014 10:45 AM

So Dan acknowledges cost-related flaws in the data gathering, but still accepts the results like the word of God. This is what happens when you assume the results before you gather the data. Did the village hire HOPE to see if there was a problem, or to prove there was a problem?

Dan Lauber from River Forest  

Posted: March 20th, 2014 12:06 AM

BTW, HOPE is one of the most respected fair housing organizations in the nation and it has been conducting valid real estate testing for decades. Their studies usually involve a lot more paired tests, but they are expensive to conduct (there are a lot of controls to ensure their validity) and like, I wrote earlier, I'll bet that Oak Park didn't pony up for a larger number of paired tests to be conducted.

Dan Lauber from River Forest  

Posted: March 20th, 2014 12:02 AM

Having read a slew of real estate testing studies, I can attest HOPE's study is fairly typical and methodologically sound. With all due respect to Jay, a study like this does NOT require someone trained in social science research methods to design it - suggesting it does is just academic arrogance. I'd be much more comfortable with a larger sample size, but I suspect Oak Park didn't spend enough for more tests. The lopsided results made the conclusions pretty inescapable.

OP Resident # 545 from Oak Park  

Posted: March 19th, 2014 12:35 PM

From the start, the HOPE report didn't pass the smell test for me. I'm glad someone has taken time to provide a more intensive, objective review of it's contents. Housing discrimination is unacceptable, however I can't shake the feeling that the HOPE study was a solution searching for a problem, i.e. the outcome was predetermined. A better way forward is needed, without HOPE.

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