SEATTLE — New research from the University of Washington offers some clues as to why, more than 50 years after the federal government banned housing discrimination, Seattle’s neighborhoods remain segregated by race.
The study, published last month in the peer-reviewed journal Social Forces, suggests that language in rental ads may have racially coded subtexts, possibly reinforcing biases among white prospective tenants that less-white neighborhoods are unsafe, peripheral and uninteresting.
The study underscores many academics’, authors’ and activists’ depiction of racism as subtle, insidious and present in nearly every institution of American life — including the rental housing market.
The UW study was notable for narrowing in on how one industry sustains racial hierarchies — without seeming to talk about race, said Junia Howell, a professor of sociology at the University of Pittsburgh who researches racial inequality.
“If we’re being honest with ourselves, every American knows we have coded language around race,” she said. “When we’re looking for the formal elements of segregation, there doesn’t need to be a sign that says ‘whites only.’ Segregation has always been much broader than that.”
The researchers scraped tens of thousands of Seattle-area rental ads posted on Craigslist — the area’s largest online rental marketplace — from March 2017 to September 2018.
Those 18 months saw the tail end of a breathtaking apartment boom as major tech employers ramped up hiring. At one point, 50 software developers a week were moving to the city during that period.
After analyzing the ads, a computer program surfaced 40 themes, or “topics,” embedded in the copy that landlords and property managers wrote to market their units. Some ads, for instance, boast about the building’s central location. Others emphasize security systems, while others play up goodies like pools and lawns.
Mapping where different themes were prevalent across Seattle showed ads for rentals in less-white neighborhoods are more likely to emphasize buildings’ safety and private, in-complex amenities, the study found. Those ads also stress how easy it is to get out of the neighborhood, discussing short commute times and proximity to transit connections.
Comparable units in predominantly white areas are described much differently, the study found. Those advertisements more often play up neighborhood walkability and community, and buildings’ “vintage charm.” Ads in predominantly white neighborhoods are also more likely to be for shared units, the study found.
Take, for instance, these two advertisements, quoted in the study:
For an apartment complex in Bitter Lake, where 45% of residents are nonwhite, compared to 33% in the city as a whole: “Step out back and find a nice stretch of private grass at your disposal … 24 Hour security in complex.”
For a building on Capitol Hill, where 25% of residents are nonwhite: “A vintage building with extremely modern conveniences! Located at the intersection of several main streets … there are endless options for entertainment.”
Both units are near parks, grocery stores, cafes and bars, said UW doctoral student Ian Kennedy, the primary author of the study. But whereas rental ads portray Capitol Hill and other predominantly white neighborhoods as exciting and central, ads like the one for the Bitter Lake unit suggest “non-White neighborhoods … need to be adorned” — with amenities like lawns and pools — “and secured to be suitable for habitation,” the study authors wrote.
The contrast could indicate what kind of community ad-writers assume prospective renters will value, said Kennedy.
The study didn’t make any conclusions about how the language in advertisements might directly sustain neighborhood segregation. But the authors hypothesized the racially coded language may signal to apartment hunters where Seattle’s white residents live, prompting them to exclude certain neighborhoods from their housing search. Previous research from the UW has shown people tend to live around others who look like them.
The study expands on research into why neighborhood segregation persists when explicit discrimination has been outlawed for decades.
“In Seattle, there’s been a perception since the early 1900s that there’s been a connection between race and housing value,” said UW professor emeritus Quintard Taylor, who has chronicled the history of Seattle’s Black community.
Developers, lenders, landlords, real estate agents, property managers and homeowners codified Seattle’s neighborhood segregation, with tools including covenants that prohibited nonwhite people from living in certain neighborhoods and lending practices that made it more difficult for nonwhite residents to obtain home loans. Those practices “pretty much guaranteed that Black folks were going to live in the Central District,” Taylor said.
Rental units were also segregated, archived copies of The Seattle Times show: As late as the early 1970s, prospective renters scanning classifieds in this newspaper would learn that some units were “restricted” — code for “whites only.”
Housing discrimination was formally outlawed by the 1968 Fair Housing Act. But Seattle remains strikingly segregated today. South Seattle residents are more likely to be people of color compared to residents of neighborhoods such as Magnolia, Ballard and West Seattle, which have higher-than-average shares of white residents.
A perception that less-white neighborhoods are less desirable continues today, Taylor said. “These ads show the historical legacy … of practices like restrictive covenants that made neighborhoods exclusive, and drove up the value of housing because of that exclusivity,” Taylor said.
The UW researchers found the racialized language in today’s advertisements was more subtle than the overt discrimination of decades past. But it’s also more pervasive — and more insidious, the study’s authors argue.
Local landlords balked at the imputation that their advertisements were racist. If ads mention a security system, it’s because some neighborhoods in Seattle are actually less safe than others, said Charlotte Thistle, the owner of a South Seattle rental house.
“There’s a lot of segregation in housing in Seattle, and there’s violence in ethnically diverse neighborhoods such as mine,” she said in an email. “The reasons why this is so may be the subject of much sociological research and debate, but there’s no denying that it is the case. The language in rental ads is merely a reflection of this, not the cause of it.”
The study authors agreed that, in part, the language in the ads likely reflects the results of racist policies and practices in real estate and urban planning. Decades of investment in predominantly white neighborhoods, often at the expense of more diverse parts of Seattle, have led to some real differences in how those neighborhoods look and feel at the street level, the study notes.
Take walkability, a topic more prominent in ads for units in whiter-than-average neighborhoods. Central Seattle, between Interstate 90 and the ship canal, tends to be more pedestrian-friendly than neighborhoods north of 85th Street, which were incorporated without sidewalks, said Gordon Padelford, the president of nonprofit Seattle Neighborhood Greenways, which advocates for safer streets. It also tends to be whiter than other parts of the city. And the streets where pedestrians are most likely to get hit by cars — Rainier Avenue, Aurora Avenue and Lake City Way — all run through lower-income neighborhoods with fewer white residents than the city at large.
“The number one reason people live in Seattle’s urban core neighborhoods is walkability,” Padelford said, citing a 2015 Puget Sound Regional Council study. “It sounds like the real estate people have probably seen the same study I’ve seen.”
But the language in the ads may also reflect biases with only a thin connection to facts, the study suggested.
When it comes to safety, for instance, crime rates vary only slightly between whiter North Seattle and less-white South Seattle, said Howard Greenwich, research director at urban development nonprofit Puget Sound Sage. The perception of crime, though, is only loosely tied to the presence of actual criminal activity.
“The premise of the ad writers is completely cynical,” Greenwich said. “It really is playing on white people’s base fears. The ads are about how white people are going to feel when they go see that apartment and walk into communities of majority people of color.”
In other ways, too, the advertisements may reflect racial assumptions about who prospective renters might be. While ads for units in less-white neighborhoods are more likely to emphasize those neighborhoods’ transit connections, some nonwhite residents of those neighborhoods say they’re underserved by transit, according to a recent Puget Sound Sage report. That’s because the region’s transit network is good at funneling workers into the downtown core, but many nonwhite Seattleites don’t work downtown.
And the ads place a racial value on aesthetics. Ads for units in predominantly white neighborhoods were more likely to stress buildings’ “vintage charm” than ads for buildings of the same age and quality in less-white neighborhoods. In other words, in the language of rental ads, not every old building counts as “vintage” and “charming”: Typically only ones in white neighborhoods do.
Whether landlords and property managers writing rental advertisements have racist intent is beside the point, Kennedy said: So long as the reality of neighborhood segregation by race goes unquestioned, the rental housing market is bound to reproduce that reality.
“There are so many positive things” about Seattle’s majority nonwhite communities, Greenwich said. “By writing ads for people who are coming from outside of the community — hooking their train to the massive growth of incoming high-paid tech workers, lawyers, accountants — landlords are missing all of that.”
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