Seeing residential segregation in House Hunters

In showing buyers of different races and ethnicities as well as different priced homes in different locations, House Hunters helps reveal residential segregation in America:

I really notice this whenever Chicago is featured on “House Hunters.” My city is hyper-segregated and diverse, with a vast number of housing and neighborhood choices for aspiring homebuyers. I quickly noticed a pattern: Chicago-set episodes usually show couples on the hunt in white North Side neighborhoods or gentrifying Latino neighborhoods. They skip over the biggest geographic part of the city—the South Side. And their budgets are $400,000 and up. One agent said that price is typical for a first-time homebuyer. (According to Zillow, the actual median home price in Chicago is about $225,000.) People shell out double that for small condos in expensive neighborhoods, or they look to the Latino communities where whites continue to move in, driving up prices and igniting racial tensions.

Aspiring buyers never explicitly say they want to live in a white neighborhood: They rattle off amenities and architectural styles, and then they choose the whitest segregated neighborhoods in Chicago. Their money would go further if they shopped on the South Side, where I live. But few seem to venture there. I recall an interracial couple—wife black, husband white—who bought in a historic black neighborhood. She pushed the fact that the house was large and under budget. He complained it was too far to bike to work.

Chicago is vast—there’s plenty of housing choice here, but that concept has been muddied by the racially restrictive housing policies that the city fine-tuned in the 20th century; banks, income inequality, legacy wealth, and discrimination have all played a factor. The redlining and racial covenants are gone, but, as “House Hunters” shows us every week, their legacy remains.

The show’s white couples might not agree on much, but they do all seem to want the same thing in a neighborhood. In the new book Cycle of Segregation: Social Processes and Residential Stratification, authors Maria Krysan and Kyle Crowder provide some insight into why. They posit a different spin on why housing segregation remains 50 years after the Fair Housing Act. Housing segregation is self-perpetuating, they say: Segregation persists because it already exists. “[R]esidential moves are structurally sorted along racial lines, which individuals’ perceptions and knowledge of residential options shaped by lived experiences and social interactions within a racially segregated social system,” they write. If you grew up in white segregation, that’s what you know and the social networks, neighborhood experiences, and daily activities reflect that reality.

I might even go a bit further: the show suggests white buyers do not typically have to consider non-white neighborhoods in which to purchase homes. Because of the resources they tend to have, white buyers are mostly purchasing in middle-class or higher neighborhoods that are often mostly white.

Additionally, House Hunters International occasionally features families explaining that the reason they desire to live in a foreign country is to experience some cultural diversity. However, they often end up living in relatively well-off neighborhoods that are often white (even if they are not full of Americans). And the families could have found more diversity in the United States if they were willing to expand their options of where to live.

On the whole, House Hunters does very little with the neighborhood in which dwellings are located or even the block. Outside of very general descriptions, homes are treated as physical objects that could exist anywhere. This makes some sense given the way that Americans emphasize homes as private spaces. Of course, homes cannot be separated by their surroundings and certain aspects of neighborhoods matter a lot for buyers.

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