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.