No End To Westchester's Racially-Polarized Housing Games

Westchester is one of the nation's wealthiest communities. It is also one of the most racially polarized. Not that long ago Yonkers, the largest city in Westchester and fourth largest in New York State, became infamous for its epic 27-year defiance of federal court orders to desegregate its schools and neighborhoods, which nearly bankrupted the city. Today Yonkers hasn't changed that much. Nor has Westchester County generally. The county still reflects a deeply segregated landscape in which blacks and Hispanics are clustered in a few cities - Yonkers, White Plains, Mount Vernon, New Rochelle, and Peekskill - creating a grossly inaccurate demographic picture of a racially diverse county when in fact in 19 towns and villages the black and Hispanic household population is less than 2 percent, and more than half of the communities are less than 5 percent black and less than 10 percent Hispanic (the county's population is 15 percent black and 22 percent Hispanic). One cause of segregated communities is the existence of exclusionary zoning laws that prevent minorities from finding adequate and affordable housing.

Ten years ago, the county was sued by the Anti-Discrimination Center in New York City under the federal False Claims Act - enacted during the Civil War to prevent fraud against the federal government - for fraudulently misrepresenting its efforts to end segregation in overwhelmingly white communities when it applied for and received over $50 million dollars in federal housing assistance. The lawsuit alleged that Westchester County violated the Act by certifying to the federal government that it was "affirmatively furthering fair housing," had properly analyzed the impact of race on housing opportunities in the county, and took appropriate actions to overcome the effects of racial discrimination in impeding minority access to housing.

The county's representations were false, as Federal District Judge Denise Cote found. She found that the county had violated the Act by its "utter failure" to analyze the degree of segregation and restricted housing opportunities due to race, and to comply with federal regulations requiring the county to make a record of impediments to fair housing choice in terms of race. Thousands of claims made by the county were "false or fraudulent." Judge Cote further found that during the period when it applied for and received millions of dollars in federal funds, the county took a "hands off" approach towards towns and villages that engage in exclusionary zoning. Among its most outrageous misrepresentations, the county affirmatively assured the court that no municipality had failed to provide affordable housing to minorities, and that no municipality was impeding the county's alleged commitment to provide affordable housing to minorities. The county made these assurances despite the fact that during this period over one-third of the municipalities in the county had created not a single affordable housing unit.

In 2009, after years of litigation at huge costs to the county, an historic settlement was reached in which the county agreed to build 750 affordable residences and also to analyze obstacles to affordable housing and present strategies for overcoming them. However, shortly after this settlement, a new administration under Republican County Executive Rob Astorino was elected, largely on Astorino's demagogic appeals to NIMBYs ("Not in My Backyard") with inflammatory rhetoric about "the federal government's assault on Westchester." While not as raw and overtly racist as George Wallace ("segregation today, segregation tomorrow segregation forever"), Astorino's rhetoric was just as provocative and inciting. He was applauded by his constituents when he vetoed the "source of income" bill - required under the settlement - that required landlords to accept government vouchers as rental payments. According to Astorino's cynical interpretation, the settlement required him to "promote" the legislation; it did not require him to "sign" it. A federal judge disagreed.

The county continued to play housing games. It repeatedly assured a federal judge, a federal housing agency, and U.S Attorney Preet Bharara, charged with enforcing the settlement, that it was complying with the agreement. But these assurances were false, causing the federal government to withhold at least $22 million dollars from the county because of its noncompliance. Under pressure, the county began building some of the 750 affordable housing units required under the agreement and actually is on track to complete the process. Critics contend that many of the units have been built on desolate sites in sparsely populated areas, or next to railroad tracks, highways, and bridges, or adjoining largely minority communities, and almost always isolated from more affluent communities.

Moreover, although the county's commitment to build affordable housing is a significant part of the settlement, it is really only a small part of the larger objective of creating a much broader framework for integrated, affordable, and fair housing throughout the county. It is here that the county had engaged in tactics of resistance and obstruction. While the settlement stipulated that the county ensure that its municipalities end their exclusionary zoning practices, and submit an analysis of impediments to affordable housing, the county continued to represent, falsely, that none of its municipalities have exclusionary zoning. And predictably, Federal Judge Cote last week rejected the county's assurances, labeling its analysis a "failed process." In fact, according to James Johnson, the federal housing official overseeing the settlement, more than a half-dozen towns and villages in the county continue to have exclusionary zoning rules. The judge gave county officials 30 days to select a consultant to prepare a proper analysis. The county has protested the judge's order, has claimed, incorrectly, that it is no longer required to submit an analysis of impediments to fair housing, and threatens to appeal.

Meanwhile, the county's tactics have undermined its professed commitment to an integrated community, caused costly delays, deprived the county of millions of dollars in federal funds, and continues to cast over the county a dark cloud of racial bias that similarly shrouded Yonkers thirty years ago.

As a final note, there is a sense of irony here. Hillary Clinton, the democratic presidential candidate, has made stirring calls to Americans to confront injustices caused by racial inequality and demand action to end racial discrimination throughout our society. Clinton lives in Chappaqua, one of the most affluent communities in Westchester, also one of the most racially segregated. Clinton has yet to demand that Westchester officials end their years of resistance and obstruction to fair and affordable housing in the county. Perhaps it's one thing for her to proselytize to Americans about racial equality in the abstract. But not when it's in her backyard.