Suburban Affordable Housing Breakthrough

Citizen Wealth Financial Justice

06rej583 Dauphine Island Westchester County, the affluent suburb outside of New York City, finally had to concede the obvious and admit that they had had not only allowed, but done nothing to prevent the creation of lily white communities throughout the County, and this amounts to racial segregation. They agreed to settle a lawsuit filed by the Anti-Discrimination Center in NYC by buying or building $50 Million worth of affordable housing (about 650 units) seeded around the county. The settlement was partially brokered by officials of HUD. This is a breakthrough!

Fair and affordable housing is the threshold issue for creating increased racial diversity in communities, schools, and other institutions. The historic role of federal housing finance institutions in actually enabling and allowing racially restrictive and discriminatory covenants by financing the construction of huge suburbs particularly the Levittowns in Long Island and outside Philadelphia, which became the gold standards for suburban development, is one of the shameful chapters of government assisted racism in the 20th century. This settlement could be precedent setting, particularly if HUD gets on the stick and uses some of these terms as templates for other suburbs.

[Incidentally, I recommend highly a new book by Thomas J. Sugrue, The Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North. Not only does Sugrue do an excellent job of looking at competing visions for suburban development between Levitt and developers willing to prove that suburbs could work that were also integrated, but he also does a good job at raising up other activists that broke hard ground in the North, even while the South was seen as the more fundamental battleground for racial equity. His balanced treatment of welfare rights organizing was a bonus in this package, especially his sensitive and respectful handling of some of the indigenous leaders of welfare rights in Boston and Philadelphia, especially Roxanne Jones, who becomes an iconic, bridging figure in Sugrue’s work. Thanks to Professor Bob Fisher at University of Connecticut School of Social Work in Hartford for bringing this volume to my attention as soon as it came out.]

The key handle in this lawsuit cum settlement is one that bears some quick, strategic research by those of us committed to equity issues as well as union organizers with an eye to finally recapturing residential construction. Westchester County had reflectively signed block grant agreements for CDBG funds without making any efforts to in fact assure that steps were being taken to desegregate and ensure fair housing. The manipulation and false application of Community Development Block Grant (CDBG funds) has been a scandal for years that no one has wanted to understand or investigate, and is therefore a huge opportunity for community organizations and organizers to turn the tables fundamentally.

This excerpt from the Times article by Sam Roberts on the settlement spells it out clearly:
“The lawsuit, filed under the federal False Claims Act, argued that when Westchester applied for federal Community Development Block Grants for affordable housing and other projects, county officials treated part of the application as boilerplate — lying when they claimed to have complied with mandates to encourage fair housing.

A Westchester official originally dismissed the suit as “garbage.” But the county was largely repudiated in February when Judge Denise L. Cote ruled in Federal District Court that between 2000 and 2006 it had misrepresented its efforts to desegregate overwhelmingly white communities when it applied for the federal housing funds.

Judge Cote concluded that Westchester had made little or no effort to find out where low-income housing was being placed, or to finance homes and apartments in communities that opposed affordable housing.
As part of Monday’s agreement, the county admitted that it has the authority to challenge zoning rules in villages and towns that in many cases implicitly discourage affordable housing by setting minimum lot sizes, discouraging higher-density developments or appropriating vacant property for other purposes. Westchester agreed to “take legal action to compel compliance if municipalities hinder or impede the county” in complying with the agreement.”

Let’s get busy!