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.
The Jeffersons reference 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 where they would like to reside, enabling people 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.
Let’s 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” on a protected class. This means that whether intentional or not, any industry, or policy that negatively impacts an area by allowing discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, disability, and/or familial status, has broken the law.
So what does all this have to do with apartments.com? Among housing advocates and those that study housing policy, it is known that planning and zoning practices have built in discriminatory biases. These biases impact where cities and towns sit low-income housing, most often resulting in reduced access to community assets such as quality schools, job centers, grocery stores, and transportation systems. You can read my research paper on federal housing policy here.
Because the new selection tool allows you to define your search by drawing a polygon, it goes beyond the traditional filters of price, size, pets, and route, allowing users the ability to cut out areas that may be characterized as “bad parts of town.” Often people identify these “bad” parts of town as low-income areas, those that border low-income areas, or areas characterized by a group of people that are “different” from you. “Bad” neighborhoods can also be areas where there is no public transit, grocery, or parks. However, the apartments.com tool simply states “find apartments in the area you select” allowing 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 based on perception, it becomes a quintessential example of disparate impact. It can also be compared to past subtle steering practices that landlords and real estate agents 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, whether intentional or not, and allow the continued impact to be felt in depressed neighborhoods. These communities already find themselves at the confluence of reduced access to paid advertising in places like apartments.com and at the mercy of city zoning practices that make them unattractive to renters and investors. Neighborhoods on the fringe continue to experience decline without mixed incomes, and development of community assets.
At any rate, what does the slogan “Change your apartment, change the world” mean? How is changing your apartment going to change the world especially in the context of “moving on up” as in the Jeffersons example used in the commercial? It is a subtle suggestion that you should move up to a nicer rental than the one you have now. However, this was precisely one of the reasons the new tool was created for apartments.com after it was acquired by CoStar Group in 2014. In their research, they found that people scour the rental sites in search of deals, specials, and recently reduced rents. These reduced rents and specials are often designed by apartment communities as a lure to increase occupancy or compete in an escalating housing market. The communities plan to recoup the reduced rates with increases at renewal, add on services, and large lease break penalties. This desire to “keep up with the Joneses” puts many households in a state of instability in a place they cannot afford.
The real driving force behind the CoStar redesign of sites like apartments.com I am sure was not to give people tools to discriminate, or to suggest that they have to chase after a luxury rental. It is to increase site users in an effort to increase leads to advertisers. Changing your apartment does not change the world, it changes the world for the people making money from the advertising.
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