Zillowing is one of America’s favorite pastimes. It hasn’t always been called Zillowing, but the act of perusing the local housing stock has always been something people do in America. We browse the houses in our neighborhood. We browse the houses in cities we’ll never live in. We browse the countryside. It is kind of a way of imagining our possible selves.
House-listing websites, like Zillow, have made it so efficient for us to look at beautiful homes that we can’t afford. Maybe it isn’t so different from turning on HGTV to see the latest renovation or going on a local homes tour to see what folks are doing to upgrade their houses. But, these websites and apps have more of an impact on our world than we might think.
The American Dream is often thought of as the opportunity for upward social mobility. In other words, if you are born into poverty, you will still have the opportunity to prosper in America. At first glance, platforms like Zillow seem to be promoting this idealism. However, if we think more critically about where we are as a society and where we want to be, then we might want to re-imagine what a house listing platform should do.
As they are now, most house listing websites are designed to show you the most stereo-typically appealing and highest value houses on the market where you are searching. This inherently means that we as consumers will look at all of the houses we can’t afford in the process of finding the house that we can afford. Perhaps that keeps us wanting more. Perhaps it keeps us perpetually dissatisfied with what we have and alters our psychology to focus solely on houses as the vehicles to greater happiness.
These websites also highlight the quality of the schools near the houses being looked at, further perpetuating the divide between schools in low-income communities and schools in high-incomes communities. Granted if these websites didn’t list the scores that rate these schools, buyers would likely still look for that information elsewhere. But showing those ratings only serves the reinforcing cycle of high-income communities having better funded schools. School funding is likely an intractable problem that can’t be solved by a house listing website, but it is clear that these websites don’t help to solve the vicious cycles associated with school funding.
On the other hand, many house listing websites have taken steps in the right direction to highlight sustainability-related features of homes and neighborhoods. Things like walkability and “Sun Numbers” help raise awareness and hopefully create conscious consumers. Is that enough though? Is that the most we can expect from these house listing websites?
What else can house listing websites, like Zillow, do to create a positive social impact?
Is buying a home about keeping up with the Jones’s? Or is it about making a good investment? Or is it about finding a good neighborhood and nesting and making your home a loving and nurturing place for your children, your family, your friends? In any case, the platforms that we use to look for houses should do more for society than keep us hooked to our phones.