Individual behavior plays a significant role in perpetuating residential racial and ethnic segregation. Illegal discrimination, including racial steering, and housing affordability both play a role, but neither can fully explain the severe segregation that plagues so many of America’s metropolitan regions. With a large majority of housing seekers now beginning their search online, how Web sites organize and display listings and data is becoming increasingly important.
In the bluntly-titled and disturbing Web Tools Whites Can Use To Avoid Accidentally Moving Into A Black Majority Or Latino Majority Neighborhood In The United States, a white supremacist blogger details precisely how a number of popular Web sites can be used to identify segregated neighborhoods and school districts. As he notes in the post, “You’re the head of a white family. You’re moving to a new city, and you’ve just found a home you think you can afford. What’s the next question you want to ask the estate agent? Yeah, you know what question I’m talking about. The question, “How many of THEM live in this neighborhood.”
As disturbing as the post might be, it is largely preaching to the converted; I doubt many housing seekers outside of the white supremacist movement will rely on its advice. This is an audience that would likely find a segregated neighborhood even without the Web. But it does raise some difficult questions about how demographic data is presented to housing seekers online, questions that might best be answered by drawing parallels to the offline housing search.
Consider whether the following situations would be legal under existing fair housing laws:
- While sitting in a real estate agent’s office and flipping through a listing book, a young man asks his agent what a certain neighborhood is “like.” The agent replies by telling him that it is a majority black neighborhood.
- Unprompted, a real estate agent tells his client that the neighborhood school for the home they’re currently viewing has a majority of students who receive a free lunch, are Latino, and score below state and national norms on test scores.
- After telling their real estate agent that living in a low-crime area was an important factor for them, the agent tells her clients both the crime rate and the racial breakdown of the neighborhood for each home they view.
- While planning a day of apartment showings, the agent at an apartment finder service tells his client about the percentage of residents who are foreign born for each apartment’s neighborhood.
You’d be hard pressed to find anyone in either the fair housing or real estate worlds who would argue that the above practices should be permitted. Decades of aggressive and effective litigation by fair housing advocates and the Department of Justice have established that these and other behaviors constitute illegal racial steering. But what happens when these same situations are replicated online, without the presence of a human real estate agent? When it is a Web site rather than a person providing the data, does fair housing act liability disappear? Perhaps more importantly, what impact on neighborhood choice will the web-based equivalents of these scenarios have?
HUD’s new Assistant Secretary for Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity John Trasvina, in his short tenure, has repeatedly noted that taking fair housing online is a priority. In a recent interview with The San Francisco Chronicle he stated,
“One of the big challenges now is advertising on the Internet, real estate agents showing properties over the Internet, Apartments.com, Craigslist. Right now, there’s a struggle to determine how best to tackle those cases where there is discriminatory language in the ads. We will get on that by initially bringing together the communications industry, the Internet service providers, as well fair housing advocates, lawyers and the real estate industry to change behavior without having to move into regulatory or legislative changes.”
While navigating the waters of fair housing liability on Web sites for third party content is complex, it just might be the easiest part of Trasvina’s quest to take fair housing online. Providing guidelines on how and when demographic data about neighborhoods and schools is shared to online housing seekers by real estate and MLS-type Web sites is truly a daunting task.