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Biases and negative neighborhood views persist in St. Louis online rental market, study finds

Andrew Holder
A recent Washington University in St. Louis study found that online rental listings in St. Louis neighborhoods with more poor, Black residents are less likely to include a neighborhood name in their advertisement. Landlords are more likely to include a neighborhood name in their rental listing if it is in an area with more college-educated residents.

Online rental listings in St. Louis neighborhoods with more poor, Black residents are less likely to include a neighborhood name in their advertisement, according to a recent Washington University rental housing study.

The study also shows that in neighborhoods with more college-educated residents, landlords are more likely to include a neighborhood name in their rental listing.

Avoiding the use of neighborhood names in listings can perpetuate segregation and inequalities in housing, said Ariela Schachter, an associate sociology professor at Wash U and co-author of “What’s in a name? Place misrepresentation and neighborhood stigma in the online rental market.”

“This is another pathway through which racialized inequality is being maintained in St. Louis — the visibility and invisibility of neighborhoods,” Schachter said.

The Urban Studies journal published the online rental market study in October conducted by Washington University along with other researchers from Michigan State University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Schachter and other researchers analyzed more than 94,000 Craigslist rental advertisements in St. Louis from 2017 to 2020. The team chose St. Louis because it is a large metropolitan area with a long history of residential segregation. Researchers merged data from Craigslist and the U.S. census to analyze whether there were patterns in how landlords or property managers were using neighborhood names in the listings.

The team wanted to learn how rental housing information is shared online, specifically on Craigslist, and how it is racialized and designed in ways that researchers say reflect underlying segregation and inequalities.

After combing through thousands of housing listings, researchers found that postings that claimed they were located in the Central West End were often located in nearby neighborhoods like DeBaliviere Place or the West End.

They also noticed that a number of listings did not include neighborhood names at all. Most landlords would only state St. Louis city or only include a ZIP code. However, Craigslist does not require people to include neighborhood names on their listings.

The study shows one way that landlords can construct housing advertisements that reproduce implicit biases about Black neighborhoods, said Elizabeth Korver-Glenn, an assistant sociology professor at Washington University who studies inequities in the housing market.

“White folks who already don't know about Black neighborhoods, continue to not know about Black neighborhoods precisely, because landlords are not saying these are neighborhoods,” Korver-Glenn said.

Schachter said the study did not prove landlords were intentionally creating housing inequities within the rental market, but she argues that landlords are just one player in a larger system of racial inequalities.

“I think their behavior on Craigslist and other sites is a product of that,” she said. “I don't think it's necessarily individual bias or intent. I think it's a reflection of these greater processes.”

Korver-Glenn said whether avoiding neighborhood names on listings is intentional or not, it affects who views the rental unit and moves into the neighborhood.

Researchers also performed a survey within the study where they showed 547 respondents the same rental housing advertisement and interchanged the neighborhood name on the listing to show either north St. Louis or St. Louis city. They wanted to better understand the respondents' perceptions of a place.

They found that the interest in renting a unit decreased among white respondents when they were told the home was in north St. Louis, compared to saying the home was in St. Louis city.

“We all have racial blind spots when it comes to neighborhoods in the cities that we live in,” Schachter said.

Andrea covers race, identity & culture at St. Louis Public Radio.