From Brooklyn to the ‘Burbs, Deconstructing Housing Segregation

By Michelle Chen Aug 11, 2009

Just beyond the city limits, New York’s cultural pastiche ebbs into a blanket of white suburbia. But a court settlement in a fair housing lawsuit could change the complexion of the five boroughs’ neighbor to the north, Westchester County. The settlement directs the county to spend more than $50 million to develop 750 affordable homes or apartments, “630 of which must be provided in towns and villages where blacks constitute 3 percent or less of the population and Hispanic residents make up less than 7 percent,” reports the New York Times. Local officials originally put a fierce resistance to the lawsuit, which argues the county failed to comply with fair housing regulations attached to federal development funds, such as the Community Development Block Grant. The case, which cites the federal False Claims Act, could mark a turning point in the struggle over housing segregation and the government institutions that have kept it in place. Pending approval by county officials, the settlement is a blueprint for promoting race-conscious affordable housing initiatives. As the county aims for a more balanced demographic and economic landscape, a federally appointed monitor would oversee compliance. According to expert testimony by sociologist Andrew Beveridge, though the county had tried to induce economic mixing in its fair-housing promotion efforts, it had failed to incorporate “actions specifically targeted to achieving the goal of reducing racial segregation.” The Anti-Discrimination Center, which brought the suit, proclaimed, “Westchester is no longer able to ignore either the residential racial segregation that continues to plague it, nor the municipal resistance to affordable housing development that stymies the possibility of changing those patterns.” But Executive Director Craig Gurian cautioned that while the litigation would expand housing opportunity, it was “not a guarantee” that more people of color would actually move in. As Westchester’s whitest neighborhoods inch toward integration, to the south, New York City’s poor and working-class communities of color continue to struggle against a tide of gentrification. The latest battlefront is one of Brooklyn’s cultural pillars, Coney Island. When the City Council overwhelmingly approved a redevelopment plan in late July, grassroots groups warned that the plan would usher in upscale developments while eroding community’s historical character. The final plan reserved 35 percent of the new housing for units affordable to lower-income families—an improvement on earlier proposals, but still well below the recommendation of progressive planners for an 80-percent set aside. The Westchester settlement won’t reverse more troubling demographic trends in the city. A 2008 study by the Pratt Center for Community Development found that high-end housing and commercial development in Downtown Brooklyn would lead to the displacement of lower-income renters and undermine the social fabric of neighborhoods. The soaring cost of living, meanwhile, is steadily pricing out the city’s Black middle class and working-class immigrants, according to a report by the Center for an Urban Future. Westchester is just a microcosm of segregation patterns across the country, which in turn perpetuate economic and educational inequalities. A coalition of human rights advocates has brought formal grievances to the United Nations, charging that the crisis of housing segregation violates the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. Enabling more Black and Brown families to settle in largely white neighborhoods would be a powerful sign that officials are addressing the scourge of housing bias. Yet, as with the mandatory school desegregation policies in the 1960s, moving people around isn’t a real response to the flipside of exclusion: the destruction of communities that people of color have built for themselves, when everyone else shut them out. Image: Map of racial segregation in Westchester County (New York Times)