Shopping for Diversity

Come with me as I daydream about real estate.

Real estate is excellent fodder for daydreaming. Entire professional fields are built on developing the glamour of homeownership, working off of the aspirational escapism of all of us poor hamsters stuck on the human wire wheel of status attainment. For recreational hausfrauen like yours truly, real estate websites offer the same seratonin hit that flipping through a J.Crew catalogue used to produce twenty years ago.

Me being me, my very favorite way to engage in this pastime is by exploring all of the websites and web gadgets that real estate companies have built up in the past few years using local data. Zillow and Trulia are the most developed examples of this I’ve seen, and what makes them so addictive is the illusion offer that you can specify exactly what kind of life you’d like to be able to lead in your new house.

My slice of demographic loooooves schools. Zillow’s property finding tool excels at allowing you to specify schools that you’d prefer — on one very specific dimension. Through an integration with the Great Schools rating website, Zillow surfaces the ranking of local schools on standardized tests. Although I know only too well that these rankings are essentially simply reports on the local economic environment of these schools, my lizard brain nonetheless enjoys looking for 9s and 10s and exploring the local housing stock.

But perhaps you are not interested solely in schools. Would you like to specify the number of reported crimes you’d be willing to tolerate in your neighborhood? How about your commute distance, by car, public transport or bike? Trulia lets you filter for properties meeting a standard you choose for both of those variables. It definitely tries to maximize the number of qualities you could choose for, offering to find you zones of lower earthquake and fire risk, proximity to (or distance from) restaurants and nightclubs, and median neighborhood property price. (It also has a school filter, but it doesn’t work as well as Zillow’s for some reason.)

But for all of these choices, none of the real estate tools I’ve seen let me search for a feature that I really want in a neighborhood: racial diversity.

This is a huge potential selling point for housing in the DC area, and yet the real estate websites have yet to make this search option available.

Taken all together, the DC metro area is incredibly racially diverse – substantially more racially diverse than the US as a whole, in fact. Unfortunately, like many metropolitan areas, that aggregate diversity hides an on-the-ground reality of neighborhoods which are largely segregated by race. As events in Ferguson, Mo. tragically underscore, the interplay of race, mutual social isolation, and power is still a core American issue, and continued de facto racial housing segregation helps to contribute this dynamic.  While no longer an explicit policy, decades of racially discriminatory housing law are effectively continued through the racialization of class and the dramatic difference in income for different kinds of city-based work.

You can see this de facto segregation in visualizations of DC’s racial demographics, such as CUNY’s Center for Urban Research maps using 2000 and 2010 data from the U.S. Census. A line runs roughly through the center of Washington DC, with most whites living on one side and most blacks living on the other.

That said, the DC metro area is getting better, at least as concerns black-white residential segregation. While the average white or black DC metro resident in 1980 lived in a neighborhood that was 70%  made up of members identifying with their race, in 2010 that figure was down below 60%. (Meanwhile, though the DC area’s Hispanic/Latino population increased over the last 10 years, people identifying in this category became more likely to live in more racially isolated neighborhoods.)

So what does this mean for casual real estate window-shoppers like myself? Well, some of us would like to be able to choose to filter not just for good schools and low crime, but also for diversity: for the neighborhoods and suburbs where our neighbors would reflect the true full range of people — and cultures, historical backgrounds, and experiences — that make up this place.

Trulia looks like it might have been exploring this option a bit a couple of years ago. In 2012, the company partnered with Forbes to look at “America’s Most Diverse Neighborhoods and Metros,” where the list of top-ranking neighborhoods linked to Trulia real estate listings. The next step will be linking that data with the rest of their data, so that potential customers can find the combination of factors that allows them to best maximize across preferences, including distance to work, transport options and school availability.

Once a “shopping for diversity” option exists, it will also need to include a consideration of whether a neighborhood’s diversity is supported through policy or local tradition and therefore seems likely to persist, or whether its just a temporary artifact of a neighborhood moving quickly from ownership dominated by one race to another (like through gentrification created by rapid new property development.)  This isn’t to say that there’s only one way to arrive at a diverse neighborhood, but if you’re looking to support the existence of racially diverse communities then the duration of diversity in a place over a period of time might signal that it’s a pretty stable quality of the location.

Anyway, even WITHOUT a dedicated tool (ahem!) I am able to use the excellent mapping tools that do exist elsewhere in order to casually explore the area. Using UrbanResearchMaps.org, I can look around and notice Germantown:

Or the environs of Silver Spring:

urbanresearch silverspring

Lots of possibilities!

Anyway, I am using this opportunity to speak directly to the real estate brokerage community out there. I know you’re keeping an eye on me, since several of you out there seem to have purchased my email address. (And seriously, Asif Qadir, do I look like someone who’s a good target for million dollar listings? Your automailer needs a few tweaks.) We should have a way to build a preference for diversity into our everyday choices, including housing.

Even if we’re just window-shopping.

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