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Language in Seattle-area rental ads divides neighborhoods along racial lines, study finds

By Katherine Khashimova Long, The Seattle Times on

Published in Home and Consumer News

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.


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