This article originally appeared on VICE Belgium.It’s no news that looking for a place to live in the capitalist hellscape we call the rental market is incredibly challenging. But if you don’t have the privilege of being white, the process of finding a home comes with an extra set of complications.
According to a 2021 survey by the housing charity Shelter, between 9 and 14 percent of people of colour have experienced discrimination on the rental housing market in the UK, up to five times more than white tenants. This is totally illegal, of course. But by its nature, the rental sector is rife with discrimination, as landlords can pick whoever they want behind closed doors and for totally arbitrary reasons.I’ve recently been through the agonising experience of looking for a new place to live. After countless responses to housing ads, I managed to secure 28 visits over three weeks. Despite putting through strong applications with two guarantors, a letter from my employer and numerous pay slips, nothing went my way. It all went well enough over the phone, but once the landlords saw me or heard my name, our interactions would quickly turn icily cold.I lost weight. I was exhausted. The constant emotional rollercoaster of hope, excitement and rejection turned me into an overwhelming ball of anxiety. That was all compounded by the creeping doubt that I had no definitive proof that I was being racially discriminated against – it was just a feeling based on small clues and offhand remarks made to me.
As I talked to other people of colour in my social circle, I realised that many of us have encountered similar issues while renting. Some found creative – albeit not always legal – ways to go around it. I asked them to share the techniques they think helped them land their place. They asked to speak on condition of anonymity to avoid running into trouble with their landlords.
When Myriam, 32, started looking for a flat, she had a relatively strong profile: She was married, had a full-time job and a good salary. But as soon as she and her husband – both from North Africa – showed up to a viewing, the atmosphere would change. “They refused to show us the apartment multiple times without justification,” Myriam remembers. “Once, I decided to do the visit without wearing my turban, thinking I might be less stigmatised, but I received the same treatment.”After a year of searching and exhausted by rejection, Myriam finally decided to send her sister's white husband to do a viewing on her behalf for an apartment she loved. “He got the apartment right away,” Myriam says. “They didn't even ask for his pay slips. Actually, they didn't ask him anything at all! The real estate agency even sent him the pre-signed lease by mail.”The final step was for her brother-in-law to add Myriam onto the lease as someone he would live with. In the end, it all worked out.
Send a white person to the viewings
Nathalie, a 25-year-old artist just starting out as a freelancer, knew renting might be complicated due to her financial situation and her heritage. “My first name is fine, but I know my surname is significant, even if it doesn't sound 'too Arabic',” she says. When she got in touch with landlords on Facebook, the price of the flat would sometimes differ from the listing. “I suspect they inflated them so I wouldn't [be] too interested,” she explains.When she spotted her dream flat, she asked a white person for help: “I couldn't miss this heaven-sent opportunity.” To improve her chances, Nathalie asked a friend of her father, a well-off man with a white-sounding last name, to be her guarantor. A few weeks after adding him to her application, she got the flat.
Mention an affluent guarantor
The last time Leïla, 28, looked for a flat, she was a student and her parents – both doctors – were her guarantors. Still, she’d often get rejected before she even got a viewing appointment. There was no direct proof of discrimination, but she had good reason to suspect bias. “On the phone, people asked me if my first name was Arabic. I can't believe they dared to do that,” she says.Over time, Leïla stopped using her name to request appointments and even asked a white friend to go to viewings for her. But after several months of searching and with the deadline of the end of her previous rental contract dangerously close, she opted for a more elaborate alternative. “When applying, I used my ex's very Flemish, aristocratic-sounding name,” she says. “Surprisingly, I got called back more often.” When she finally found a place, she signed it with her name and stated her ex would be living with her. Her landlord “changed her mind” at the last minute.Not all was lost. Eventually, Leïla did find an apartment by going through an Arab real estate agent. “Perhaps the only way to escape all this nonsense,” she concludes, “is to have more and more racial diversity in real estate.”
Find a ‘racial ally’
Marta, 25, from Chile, came to Belgium after living in Spain for a while and immediately noticed a difference in the way she was being treated. In Belgium, she was labelled as an immigrant and, thanks to her heritage, unfairly associated with drug dealing and trafficking. During her last flat hunt, Marta was still 18 and looking with her mum. At viewings, landlords would change their attitude when they found out they were Chilean and not Spanish. After a string of rejections, her mother made a habit of briefing her before going into a viewing.
Hide your heritage – though this doesn’t always work
Marta remembers her mother saying she was lucky to have a European-sounding first name. She was also instructed to disguise her accent while speaking with the real estate agent, not to speak Spanish at all during viewings and not to dress too “Latina”, in her words. “We are proud of our origins, but we really had to hide who we are,” she sighs. She was lucky – being able to pass for a white European in the first place isn’t an option for some. Despite their efforts, the same fateful questions came up every time during showings. “Where do you come from?”; “Have you been in Belgium for long?”; “Why are you here?” Marta observed they were often the only applicants to be asked these questions.Eventually, Marta and her mother found an apartment – it’s expensive, though, and her mother sleeps in the living room. They attribute their luck to their landlord being “super cool” and not “asking them overly personal questions”.
Lucien, 57, didn’t want to resort to this approach. He first tried to do things the regular way. “With my name, no agency or landlord imagines seeing a tall Black man arrive for the viewing,” he said. “They always treated me much colder than over the phone.” Fearing he was getting nowhere with his flat hunt, Lucien decided to adopt a “more aggressive strategy”, as he puts it. As the manager of his own company, he could easily manipulate his professional documents and enter a fictitiously high salary. “Honestly, if you reach that point, it means you really think you're going to end up on the street,” he says. “From there, I found an apartment without any difficulty.”Lucien has done this multiple times and never been caught. But he’s aware of the risks, especially ever since he became a father. “It could have been dangerous,” he recalls. “When I did it only for myself, it was my problem, but when you have a family, it's a more delicate situation. I wanted a home for my children, so I knew I had to lie.”