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Terms in Seattle-area rental ads reinforce neighborhood segregation, study says

Published on August 31, 2020

Home Owners' Loan Corporation Philadelphia redlining map.
Home Owners' Loan Corporation Philadelphia redlining map. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons public domain

A new University of Washington study of thousands of local rental ads finds a pattern of “racialized language” that can perpetuate neighborhood segregation, using specific terms to describe apartments in different areas of town.

Terms like “convenient” and “safe and secure” are more common in neighborhoods with a greater proportion of people of color, while “vintage” and “classic” are more popular in predominantly white neighborhoods.

“When you’re looking at racial segregation, we all make housing choices, and those choices we make affect segregation. We should know if we’re making choices based on racialized discourse,” said Ian Kennedy, a sociology graduate student at the UW and lead author of the study. “A racialized society can be perpetuated through means that aren’t clearly conscious.”

The findings don’t mean the ads are overtly, or even intentionally, racist, Kennedy said. Rather, words and phrases – certain terms common to some neighborhoods, and certain terms for others – can reinforce perceptions of neighborhoods, influence where people choose to live, and ultimately, create areas of the city where some racial and ethnic groups are more prevalent than others.

The study published Aug. 3 in the journal Social Forces.

Past research has documented segregation in Seattle, and the legacy of redlining in some neighborhoods. Through the mid-20th century, real estate and rental ads identified properties in “restricted” areas – those with covenants designed to keep out people of color. The Fair Housing Act of 1968 prevented such discrimination in housing, and by 1970, overtly race-related language in local housing ads had essentially disappeared. But by then, as is the case elsewhere in the countrygeographic and demographic patterns had been cemented, and less-explicit forms of discrimination continued.

Given Seattle’s economic and population growth in recent years, Kennedy wanted to examine the factors that could sustain some of the de facto segregation that exists today. Seattle has grown by more than 130,000 people since 2010, and people new to the area may have little information about specific neighborhoods.

UW sociologist Kyle Crowder has written about how people tend to move to neighborhoods where there are others “like” them, often because others in their social networks live there or recommend them. Combined with the legacy of racial segregation, this perpetuates neighborhoods where predominantly white people live and shop, neighborhoods where Black people tend to live and shop, and so on.

Amandalynne Paullada, UW Linguistics PhD candidate, co-authored the study.


Continue reading at UW News.

Originally written by Kim Eckart for UW News.
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