I’m sure by now most of you have seen the commercial that Apartments.com did with Jeff Goldblum around the time of the superbowl. (in case you missed it) The commercial features a cheeky reference to the sitcom, The Jeffersons with the theme song about their move from a working class neighborhood to an affluent neighborhood.
For those that do not know The Jeffersons, the show was about a working class minority couple that accumulated wealth and moved to the upper east side of Manhattan. The show was a spinoff of All in the Family, about a white working class patriarch and his family. The show tackled controversial issues with what John Roleke (2014) refers to as undercurrents of racism that prompted “white flight” in predominantly white working-class neighborhoods like that of All in the Family.
This is an interesting frame for Apartments.com to debut their new apartment selection tools. The new tool allows renters to go beyond identifying the neighborhood they want to live in. It allows them to exclude areas right down to the street, or section of a neighborhood.
The commercial has already caught some heat for endorsing subtle racism, (take a look at this post by Moira Keihm) but I’m going to suggest that it goes much deeper than that.
Lets discuss the new apartment selection tool debuted in the commercial in the frame of disparate impact. According to the National Fair Housing Alliance disparate impact refers to a practice that could be considered discriminatory if it has a disproportionate “adverse impact” against a protected class. This means that whether intentional or not, if the housing industry negatively impacts an area by allowing discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, disability, and/or familial status, they have broken the law.
So what does all this have to do with apartments.com? It is widely known that planning and zoning practices have built in discriminatory biases. These are things like where to sit low income housing, reduced access to community assets such as quality schools and grocery stores, and transportation systems that cut off areas perceived as low in value. You can read my research paper here.
Because the new selection tools allow you to define your search on more than just zip code or neighborhood, it allows for cutting out areas that may be characterized as “bad parts of town”. The tool allows people a seemingly innocuous way to narrow down their apartment search.
On its face the tool looks like just another apartment selection tool. However, given the ability to cut out areas perceived as bad parts of a neighborhood, it becomes a quintessential example of disparate impact. It can also be compared to subtle steering practices that landlords have used to “guide” people into housing options “appropriate” for their race, gender, handicap,familial status, etc.
This is not about the end user. Should you want to be discriminatory in your choice of housing that is your right. This is about apartments.com, an industry endorsed site, that is required to uphold the Fair Housing laws. They should not facilitate discrimination in any form and allow the continued impact to be felt in depressed neighborhoods.
“Change your apartment, change the world” – I think not.
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