Researchers say they are shocked to find an apparent racial bias by mortgage lenders against Maori people who "look Maori" - but real estate entrepreneur Mike Pero is not surprised.
The Auckland University research has found that a Maori person who rates 5.55 out of 7 on a scale of Maori-like personal appearance is twice as likely not to own their own home as a European-looking Maori rating only 1 on the scale, after allowing for all other factors including income and age.
The effect of personal appearance on home ownership was roughly as strong as the effect of income - a result that shocked the researchers.
"We were absolutely stunned," said psychologist Dr Chris Sibley, who leads the NZ Attitudes and Values Study.
Co-author Dr Carla Houkamau, a social psychologist in the university's business school, said: "It's quite shocking when you are researchers and you are looking at results and you think, no, it can't be right, surely it can't be based on how people look!"
In their paper in US-based open access journal Plos One, they wrote: "What our analyses are picking up on is a statistical signal that is most likely to have been produced by a systematic bias in lending by banking institutions over a fairly long period of time."
Mike Pero, the founder of New Zealand's biggest mortgage broking company and son of a Cook Islands Maori, said: "That would be a fair comment."
"It's totally not what we would want to have as a nation," he said.
"Put it this way: if there's an application, all things being equal, and it was a tight one, if it had a Maori name there as a couple it might be enough [to reject it]. It's probably something that's not written down, but it would be a possibility that that could be prejudice as well.
"You'll never prove it, but I know through my own life, I'm 55 years of age, I know there have been certain circumstances where people prejudge you on your name."
Only 28 per cent of all Maori aged 15 and over owned their own homes in the 2013 Census -- half the European rate of 57 per cent and behind Asians (35 per cent), although ahead of Pacific people (18.5 per cent).
The new research asked Maori to rate themselves between 1 (strongly disagree) and 7 (strongly agree) on seven statements such as "You only need to look at me to see that I am Maori" and "People would never know that I am of Maori descent just by looking at me."
Predictably, the survey found that average household incomes for Maori homeowners ($99,600) were double those of Maori non-homeowners ($50,500). Every extra $10,000 of income made home ownership 15 per cent more likely.
One step up in educational qualifications made home-owning 41 per cent more likely and having a partner made it 3.3 times more likely.
Conversely, rising one step on the the seven-step scale of Maori-like personal appearance reduced home ownership by 18 per cent, a comparable effect to income.
However Dr Eric Crampton of the NZ Initiative think-tank said there could be many other explanations for this besides racial bias. For example, people who looked more Maori might have parents who did not have freehold properties to use as collateral for loans, a factor that was not surveyed.
"Banks would be throwing money away if they decided to not lend to somebody simply based on looks," he said.
Mortgage brokers Bruce Patten in Auckland and Karen Essex-Mooney in Blenheim both said they had never seen a mortgage application turned down because the borrowers were Maori. They said many borrowers now applied online and never actually met the lenders.
New Zealand Bankers' Association chief executive Kirk Hope said racial stereotyping was not in the banks' or their customers interests especially within such a competitive part of the banking sector.
"Banks consider a range of factors when making a lending decision," he said. "The customer's ability to repay the loan is among the most important things banks take into account.
"They'll also look at your equity in the property and any possible changes in your future circumstances."
NZ Attitudes & Values Survey
• Started in 2009 with 6500 people from the electoral rolls.
• Surveys will be repeated every year for 20 years with extra samples added each year.
• Aims to track changes in New Zealanders' personalities, attitudes and values.
• Funded by a Marsden grant and Auckland University.