A research project by two Hope College students who examined discrimination in rental housing in West Michigan is being featured in a forum on Wednesday, Nov. 30, sponsored by the Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance (LEDA).

The study, "Differential Treatment in the Lakeshore Rental Housing Market," was conducted in March by then-seniors Jacob Kain and Randall Owen under the direction of Dr. Joel Toppen of the college's political science faculty. The researchers found statistically significant differences in treatment for perceived white, Hispanic and African American inquiries in Holland and Grand Haven. For each variable measured, perceived whites received better treatment.

Toppen, who designed the project, will share the study methodology and results on Wednesday, Nov. 30, at 7 p.m. at the City of Grand Haven Council Chambers, located at 519 Washington Street in Grand Haven. Also during the event, Tonya Willingham of the West Michigan Fair Housing Center will share information regarding fair housing laws. The forum has been scheduled as part of the "Fostering Communities of Inclusivity!" series sponsored by LEDA.

The public is invited, and admission is free.

In addition, an interview with Toppen will be featured on the WGVU radio morning show on Thursday, Dec. 1.

In the telephone study, Kain and Owen responded to advertisements for rental housing that had been placed in online editions of local newspapers. Keeping other variables constant, they varied the name they volunteered to indicate non-Hispanic white, Hispanic/Latino and African American, such as Matt VandeKamp, Carlos Gomez and Darnell Washington respectively.

They found that presumed white callers were more likely to be called back when leaving a message, more likely to be told the property was available, more likely to be given specific information about the property and more likely to be invited to see the property, and that the length of the calls with presumed whites were likely to be longer. For example, the specific rent amount was mentioned in 13 of 15 (87 percent) conversations with presumed white callers but only in nine of 24 (38 percent) of minority interactions. Similarly, the rental unit was described for presumed white callers in 14 of 15 (93 percent) conversations but in only seven of 12 (58 percent) cases for Hispanics.

Toppen feels that the results indicate that action must be taken to insure fair access to housing for all in the community.

"We found substantial differences in treatment, all in the direction that whites received what we would term 'preferred treatment,'" said Toppen, who is an assistant professor of political science. "This is only one study, but it should ring alarm bells, raise the red flag, to say it looks like we have a problem."

Toppen noted that as happens throughout the college, the department involves students in collaborative faculty-student research and experiential learning in a variety of ways. He is particularly pleased to see it have a direct impact in this case on the community.

"Hope students are doing research that adds to the public debate and possibly leads to changes in public policy," he said.

He added that it's a level of impact that he hasn't seen happening in his discipline at other institutions.

"To have an undergraduate research paper be informing public debate, I don't come across it in political science," he said.