Study Led by Ian Kennedy Sheds Light on Discriminatory Rental Practices Throughout Seattle Neighborhoods

doorway of an apartment building in Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood

Graduate student Ian Kennedy has published a new study,that takes a closer look at how rental ads continue Seattle's long history of segregation. The study is also co-authored by Chris Hess, a recent alumnus of UW Sociology. The most recent audit study by the City of Seattle's Office of Civil Rights found evidence of discriminatory treatment in the majority of Seattle rental units that were audited. Analyzing thousands of rental listings on Craigslist, Kennedy finds that that traditional forms of discrimination have become less overt and are now hidden in the language of rental advertisements.

This subtle racialized language affects the up to 40% of renters in the Seattle area, despite the federal government's ban on housing discrimination over 50 years ago. The 1968 Fair Housing Act outlawed discrimination on the basis of race and ethnicity, but the law was unable to prevent it, evident from the tens of thousands of rental ads scraped and analyzed between March 2017 and September 2018 as well as the fact that Seattle remains highly segregated even today. 

The study found that in areas with more non-white residents, rental ads emphasized the building's safety, privacy, and amenities, whereas in predominately white areas, the ads described the neighborhood's walkability and community, and buildings’ “vintage charm.” These ads could indicate what kind of tenants property owners are seeking. While the study doesn't draw conclusions on how the language might directly sustain neighborhood segregation or increase gentrification, 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.

Read more about this study at KING 5, the Seattle Times, or listen to an interview with Ian at KUOW.