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‘Cause Everything Is Rent

October 30th, 2007 · 7 Comments

The New York Times reports that New York landlords are increasingly refusing to rent to tenants who receive rent subsidy vouchers from the federal government. The landlords mostly say it’s because they’re tired of dealing with the program’s cumbersome bureaucracy, though some are reported to believe that the subsidized tenants “do not take care of the units as well as other residents do.” But housing activists are asserting, without any apparent evidence, that more insidious forces are at work:

We think that this is really about gentrifying neighborhoods and the fact that this is a way for landlords to do race and gender [?!?] discrimination under a nice-sounding name,” said Bertha Lewis, executive director of New York Acorn, a community organizing group.

This seems sort of implausible. Even if we ignore the more parsimonious explanation that landlords are sincere in their complaints about the program’s bureaucracy, one would expect that the main way discrimination would factor into an apartment building landlord’s rental decision is by way of racial stereotypes being used as a proxy for class. And that seems like an awfully circuitous route to take when the vouchers are themselves a direct class indicator. And unless the racial composition of the voucher recipients has changed abruptly, it would also imply that landlords have mysteriously become dramatically more racist over the past few years. It seems more likely that housing activists are just grasping for a motivation that most everyone agrees is illegitimate because it relieves them of the obligation to respond to the landlords’ avowed concerns.

Update: I think I probably sketched the idea of “proxy racism” a little too quickly, so let me append some of the elaboration from the comments here. There are a couple ways we can imagine racism working. One is just a straightforward dislike or animosity toward a certain group. You might imagine a landlord refusing a gay couple, not because he believes they’ll be bad tenants in any way, but just because he’s repelled by homosexuality. The other sort, what I’m calling “proxy racism,” involves imputing stereotypical traits to members of some group and making the decision on that basis. Here the traits themselves are valid considerations against renting someone an apartment (they’re likely to miss payments; they won’t care for the property); the illegitimate part is associating those traits with any member of the group.

I’m not saying that “proxy racism” is somehow more acceptable or not “real” racism. Only that the chain of reasoning “subsidized tenant, therefore more likely to be a member of a certain racial or ethnic group, therefore likely to have traits undesirable in a tenant” seems a lot more circuitous than the inference that runs “subsidized tenant, therefore likely to have traits undesirable in a tenant.”

Put another way: Suppose I think Spanish people are more often obese than others. And maybe I’ve heard that the Cheeseburger Lover’s Club has a disproportionate number of Spanish members. Still, if I form the belief that members of the CLC are apt to be heavier than average, it’s probably not going to be by way of my beliefs about Spaniards.

Maybe the second sort of inference is also illegitimate—though it doesn’t seem nearly as irrational or offensive on face as the former one—but it is, at any rate, a different inference.

Tags: Academia



7 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Anonymous // Oct 30, 2007 at 3:56 pm

    I never understood why if I said something that is true about about a certain group that isn’t white male (I’m white male) which groups people together, I’m a racist but if an organization like this says it it’s ok.

    Let’s look at the logic

    “You’re being a racist for not selling fried chicken”


    “Because black people eat fried chicken and by not selling it they don’t come in here”

    Substitute fried chicken for vouchers ( I know it’s not a perfect analogy but I’m low on time). How is it any less racist? And these are the people who supposedly fighting for peoples rights?

  • 2 Other Ezra // Oct 30, 2007 at 6:51 pm

    “one would expect that the main way discrimination would factor into an apartment building landlord’s rental decision is by way of racial stereotypes being used as a proxy for class”

    Why would you expect that? There’s a long history of housing discrimination in this country based on keeping neighborhoods white. It’s certainly not uncommon in today’s rental market.

    But I think, in this case, the ACORN lady is just using a standard trope of discussions about gentrification, that “urban renewal equals n– removal.” It’s lazy, sure, but it wasn’t that long ago that the Supreme Court treated discriminatory effects as evidence of discrimination.

  • 3 Julian Sanchez // Oct 30, 2007 at 8:46 pm

    Discrimination may be common in today’s rental market, but nothing in the article you linked distinguishes between the stereotype-based race-as-proxy variety and straightforward race hatred. And the second variety seems unlikely to be a major factor in the decisionmaking process of apartment landlords in a dense city like New York. An individual landlord has no real impact on the racial composition of a neighborhood, so they’re more apt to be looking primarily at their bottom line. Which means that racism is likely to figure in their decisions primarily to the extent that racial stereotypes lead them to expect members of certain groups to be more prone to imposing costs on the property or failing to pay.

  • 4 Other Ezra // Oct 31, 2007 at 10:22 am

    Maybe I’m not clear about this idea of “race-as-proxy.” If Ivan has a prejudice that says it is typical for a minority to be poor (or unclean, or any other negative association), and he decides to reject a tenant on that basis, how is that not called racial discrimination? Is it because deep down, it’s simply that he doesn’t like poverty or uncleanliness and the race thing is just a marker? And since it’s not “pure” hatred (indeed, he can think of many such negative traits he associates with minorities) it doesn’t count?

    Or are you saying that, if he has such a prejudice, it must be justified by his experience and rational judgment? Because a businessman is never motivated by anything but the bottom line?

    To be clear, I didn’t mean a modern landlord has to want to keep his neighborhood white to exercise racial discrimination. More likely, he’ll think, I don’t want to deal with a minority because those people are poor, lazy, loud, etc. This generally happens by falsely telling a prospective tenant that the apartment is rented, before the landlord gets any actual economic or personal indicators other than voice or appearance. In this case, the ACORN lady is saying that Section 8 is such a pretext.

    I’m not saying it’s what’s going on here–there are plenty of reasons not to take Section 8, all other things being equal, and it is clearly an economic indicator, as you say in your post. But in your logic, you are far too generous to landlords, as well as to the character of people in New York City.

  • 5 Julian Sanchez // Oct 31, 2007 at 10:59 am

    I think we’re on the same page here, more or less. Look, I’m not saying that what I’m calling “race by proxy” discrimination is somehow acceptable or not “really” racism or discrimination. I’m just saying that the way it functions in the landlord’s mind goes something like: “This person is a poor risk as a tenant, because I think members of group X are more likely to [fill in the blank].” And the same logic works when “group X” is “voucher recipients.” I’m just saying there’s not much reason to think they add the extra step from the voucher group to a racial group before getting to the blank.

    Put another way: Suppose I think Spanish people are more often obese than others. And maybe I’ve heard that the Cheeseburger Lover’s Club has a disproportionate number of Spanish members. Nevertheless, I would almost certainly form the belief that the Cheeseburger Lover’s Club runs heavier than average by a chain of reasoning that had nothing to do with my beliefs about Spaniards.

  • 6 X. Trapnel // Oct 31, 2007 at 3:23 pm

    I think you’re leaving out a third sort of discrimination: a totally race-neutral, profit-maximizing landlord, who discriminates against racial minorities because he thinks the racism of most (other) white folks means the minorities’ presence will get in the way of the neighborhood becoming more upscale. I have no idea if this is what’s going on, but it could well be a part of it; it’s also perfectly consistent with change over time. If the neighborhood has been relatively stagnant but is starting to gentrify, you might care more about attracting a different (richer, probably whiter and hence perhaps uncomfortable with minorities) sort of tenant now than you did in the past.

  • 7 Julian Sanchez // Oct 31, 2007 at 4:57 pm

    Good point. I suppose that would be an instance of racial discrimination but not, strictly speaking, of racism.

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