Green means go. Yellow means caution. And red means stop. Small wonder that some industry observers have decried the tendency of many real estate websites to rate schools — which are reportedly treated by some as a proxy for local racial makeup — with traffic-light colors.

  • The removal of traffic-light color coding from Zillow and Trulia's school ratings raises the possibility that public scrutiny can prompt real estate services to adjust their data practices.
  • Zillow Group made the change in part "to reflect that GreatSchool ratings alone do not define school quality."
  • The National Fair Housing Alliance is evaluating whether neighborhood data steers people away from neighborhoods with high concentrations of minorities.

Green means go. Yellow means caution. And red means stop.

Small wonder that some industry observers have decried the tendency of many real estate websites to rate schools — which are reportedly treated by some as a proxy for local racial makeup — with traffic-light colors.

Following some recent media attention, Zillow Group has purged colors from school ratings on Zillow and Trulia, raising the possibility that public scrutiny can prompt real estate services to adjust their data practices.

What’s wrong with color codes?

The change comes as the National Fair Housing Alliance (NFHA) investigates whether school and crime ratings may steer homebuyers away from communities with high concentrations of minorities.

“We made changes to the color scheme to better reflect our site branding” and “to reflect that GreatSchool ratings alone do not define school quality,” said Zillow spokeswoman Amanda Woolley. GreatSchools is the provider of the school ratings that appear on Zillow and Trulia.

Woolley didn’t respond directly when asked whether Zillow Group had received any legal threats or complaints related to the color-coded school ratings, answering, “We are always testing different user experiences and often incorporate feedback we receive from consumers.”

school-ratings-on-zillow-property-page

2014 (left) and 2016 (right) versions of the same Zillow property page show how the listing portal has adjusted how it displays school ratings.

Many listing portals have integrated school data into their sites over the last few years, offering filters that let users search properties based on school attendance zones and displaying color-coded ratings on listings.

Realtor.com, redfin.com and homes.com are among leading real estate sites that continue to represent schools with traffic-light colors.

The nuts and bolts of the change

On Zillow and Trulia search maps, prospective homebuyers previously could view listings alongside color-coded pins with scores ranging from one through 10. Each pin represented a school, with red representing the lowest ratings (1 through 3); yellow the mid-range (4 through 7); and green the highest (8 through 10).

Zillow and Trulia users can still hide pins representing low-rated schools on a search map, but the pins now only show scores against a gray background. The same goes for the ratings that appear on listings.

Zillow has also added a disclaimer beneath ratings noting that they are “designed to be a starting point” and “not the only factor in selecting the right school for your family.”

“Similar to the Zestimate, we clarified the disclaimer on GreatSchools’ data to remind our users that the data should be used as a starting point to help parents make baseline comparisons, not be the only factor in selecting the right school or home,” Woolley said.

Zillow Group made the updates sometime after the October publication of an NPR article that cast showing school ratings on real estate websites as legally questionable. Inman explored the same issue in a 2014 series on neighborhood data.

The NPR article cited a report from the National Fair Housing Alliance, which said that fair housing testing shows how “schools have become a proxy for the racial and ethnic composition of neighborhoods.”

It also reported that a homebuyer searching listings on Zillow “quickly took note of the color-coded school ratings and said they reminded her of redlining,” a discriminatory practice supported by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) until passage of the Fair Housing Act in 1968.

NFHA and school ratings

The NFHA will use focus groups to gauge how buyers from different racial, ethnic and economic backgrounds respond to neighborhood statistics, and whether their display can “create or foster a negative stigma of a neighborhood,” said NFHA CEO Shanna Smith.

The fair housing group has not filed any complaints against real estate websites for their data practices, but any future action it might consider would “depend on the impact these practices have on buyers,” Smith said.

“[W]e will evaluate if buyers view these practices as steering people to or away from neighborhoods of color, ethnic communities, neighborhoods with mosques/temples or neighborhoods with programs or housing serving people with disabilities,” she added.

“Removing the traffic light coding is simply a beginning,” Smith said, when asked for her reaction to Zillow Group’s update. “Neighborhoods are so much more than statistics.”

Zillow Group isn’t the first online real estate company to have tweaked data practices that raised concerns among some industry stakeholders. RealtyTrac migrated sex offender data off its listings in 2014 after industry pushback.

Email Teke Wiggin.

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