Between October 2019 and March 2020 (the period before corona), the researchers carried out a first series of 482 tests with estate agents on the rental market. They responded to existing advertisements on property website Immoweb, each with two fictitious candidate tenants: the test person had a Moroccan- or Congolese-sounding name and the control person a traditional Belgian-sounding name. Both candidates were otherwise identical in all relevant characteristics. Afterwards, they examined how often candidates were invited to view the rented accommodation. These tests showed that Moroccan Belgians were discriminated against by real estate agents in 20% of cases and Congolese Belgians in 17% of cases.
In mid-March 2020, Covid-19 infections started to rise sharply and the government imposed a lockdown. As a result, in-person property visits were no longer possible until 16 May. During this lockdown, the supply of rental housing continued to increase gradually and new rental properties continued to be placed on the property sites. The demand for rental housing plummeted during the first weeks of the lockdown, but quickly recovered to a higher level in mid-May than before the lockdown. People temporarily postponed their search for rental housing, which resulted in more candidate tenants in the long run. “This combination of a gradually increasing supply of rental housing during the lockdown on the one hand, and the greater demand for rental housing due to the temporary suspension of the search on the other hand, resulted in considerably more work for estate agents in the period after lockdown,” says Prof Verhaeghe. “And this unfortunately also had disastrous consequences for prospective tenants.”
To assess the impact of the lockdown on the rental market, Prof Verhaeghe and Ghekiere organised a second series of 440 tests between 16 May and 30 June (the period just after the lockdown). These tests showed that the chances of being invited to view a property had dropped sharply for almost all candidates. “Estate agents were much more selective in their invitations,” explains Ghekiere. “This may be due to the increased workload, the fear of contamination or the limited possibility to organise home visits.” Although the chances of securing a viewing among candidates with a Belgian-sounding name fell by a quarter, those of candidates with a Moroccan-sounding name also fell, resulting in more ethnic discrimination. Rent discrimination against Moroccan Belgians almost doubled, from 20% to 36%.
Notably, however, discrimination of Congolese Belgians did not increase. They continued to be invited to viewings just as infrequently as before the lockdown. Because the chances of candidates with a Belgian-sounding name fell while remaining stable for those with a Congolese-sounding name, the discrimination rate for the latter fell from 17% to 6%.
“In other words, we see that it was mainly Moroccan Belgians who suffered on the rental market because of the lockdown,” say Verhaeghe and Ghekiere. “We suspect that this is because this community in particular was often stigmatised in the media with regard to a high percentage of corona infections and non-compliance with the corona measures.”
“The corona crisis is exacerbating many inequalities in our country and discrimination is unfortunately no exception,” adds Verhaeghe. “"The private rental housing market has already been under pressure for a long time and the previous lockdown has deepened these problems."
This study was recently published in the sociological international journal European Societies.
Professor Pieter-Paul Verhaeghe
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