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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

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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