Research Finds Online Rental Platforms Reinforce Housing Inequalities and Residential Segregation

A new study, “Segmented Information, Segregated Outcomes: Housing Affordability and Neighborhood Representation on a Voucher-Focused Online Housing Platform and Three Mainstream Alternatives,” analyzes affordability and neighborhood representation patterns across four online rental housing search platforms. The research compares GoSection8, an online platform specializing in affordable housing for households with Housing Choice Vouchers (HCVs), to three other “mainstream” platforms. The study finds that while rental listings on GoSection8 were significantly more affordable than those on mainstream platforms, these affordable listings were concentrated in more highly segregated, high-poverty neighborhoods.

The researchers collected rental listing data daily between October 2020 and June 2021 from GoSection8, Craigslist, Zillow, and The final database included approximately 2 million listings from the 50 largest U.S. metropolitan areas by population. The researchers compared these listings to American Community Survey (ACS) data to determine neighborhood housing and demographic characteristics for the listings. The researchers also drew on U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) county-level Fair Market Rent data to assess the affordability of these listings.

Rental units listed on GoSection8 were significantly more affordable than rental units listed on mainstream platforms. The average price of rentals on all mainstream platforms was at least 20% higher than the average for rentals on GoSection8. GoSection8 listings were approximately 30 percentage points more likely than mainstream listings to be below a county’s FMR. GoSection8 listings remained more likely than mainstream listings to be below a county’s FMR even after adjusting for differences in neighborhood characteristics across listings.

GoSection8 rental listings were the most affordable of those listings on the platforms analyzed, but GoSection8 listings were also significantly more likely to be concentrated in high-poverty areas. The researchers estimated “spatial compression” – that is, the extent to which each platform’s listings were representative of all neighborhoods – across each platform. The researchers found GoSection8 listings had the most spatial compression, meaning the listings were the least representative of all neighborhoods. Craigslist had the second most spatial compression, followed by and Zillow. The demographic and housing characteristics of GoSection8 listings were also significantly different from those of listings on mainstream platforms. GoSection8 listings were more likely to be concentrated in higher poverty neighborhoods, which are more likely to experience higher rates of Latino-White and Black-White segregation.

The study finds that rental listings on GoSection8 were more affordable than those found on mainstream platforms. However, these listings were also disproportionately located in disadvantaged neighborhoods with high poverty and residential segregation. The researchers suggest that this segmentation of housing information on different online platforms reinforces existing neighborhood inequalities and segregation patterns. The authors note that future research could assess the types of tenants and landlords using each platform as well as their motivations for selecting specific platforms.

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