Building Justice: How Community Preferences Enforce Racial Segregation in NYC

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Mayor de Blasio breaks ground on Phase II of Hunter’s Point South in November 2015. His administration has faced pressure from some quarters to increase the community set-aside in such projects even as it fights a lawsuit seeking to eliminate those preferences altogether.

Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office

Mayor de Blasio breaks ground on Phase II of Hunter’s Point South in November 2015. His administration has faced pressure from some quarters to increase the community set-aside in such projects even as it fights a lawsuit seeking to eliminate those preferences altogether.

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A cascade of crises is forcing America to confront the racism of its past and present—from overt acts of hate to subtler injustices that shape our society. Over 16 weeks, City Limits and Enterprise Community Partners will feature prominent New Yorkers’ views on how race and housing policy intersect to create a legacy each of us must confront, and the way forward we should take together. These are not necessarily views we endorse. But they are views we fully believe are important to share with each other. Here is the seventh post in our series. Read the rest here.

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As previous articles in this series have made clear, residential segregation remains entrenched both in New York City and in the broader metropolitan region. Why?

We know that segregated housing patterns – created decades ago through deliberate discrimination by both public and private actors – are still being maintained through governmental policy: exclusionary zoning on the suburban level; a range of segregation-perpetuating policies on the city level. But knowing that doesn’t answer the question as to why there hasn’t been more success in eliminating those policies.

There is plenty of blame to go around – the phrase “limousine liberalism,” for example, comes immediately to mind. For City Limits readers, though, I believe it is most fruitful to probe the ideological factors and tactical approaches that, here, are not the preserve of neoliberals or conservatives. The first is the transmuting of the term “community” from one that Dr. King intended as inclusive and involving the crossing of boundaries to one that means, effectively, “this is ours, not yours.” The second is a fetishistic devotion to narrowly drawn geographic boundaries and to the idea that local decision-making is always best. And the third is an effort to make housing mobility (the key engine of desegregation) appear to be the enemy of housing security – something that, in the affordable housing context, it most assuredly is not. The results over time have been disastrous, not only because of a lack of support for anti-segregation efforts, but also because a lack of appreciation of commonality across neighborhoods has made anti-displacement efforts less effective than they should have been.

These developments have been brewing for a long time, but I’ll focus on how a lawsuit filed by my organization, the Anti-Discrimination Center (ADC), has brought them into sharper focus.

In 2015, ADC, on behalf of three African-American women, sued New York City for perpetuating segregation through the outsider-restriction policy that the City applies in its affordable housing lotteries. Each lottery gives preference for 50 percent of the units to people who already live in the community district where the particular housing development is being built. That preference exists even if the applicant has only lived in the community district for 10 minutes and even if the applicant has been living in comfortable circumstances. By contrast, the New Yorker who has been living outside of the community district doubled-up with relatives in a deeply impoverished neighborhood for decades is not permitted to compete for any preference units that a community district resident has applied for.

Because community districts are typically marked by high levels of segregation, the policy regularly improves the chances of the dominant racial or ethnic group in the community district to get the new housing over what those chances would be if all income-eligible families were treated equally. Our clients, had applied to lotteries in Murray Hill and on the Upper West Side; the policy boosted the odds for whites to the detriment of African-Americans and Latinos. More generally, eliminating outsider-preference would increase African-American and Latino access to neighborhoods of opportunity. (Those opportunities would increase still further if the city were not so resistant to allowing a more proportionate share of affordable housing units to be built in those neighborhoods of opportunity.)

From a civil rights perspective, this is an easy one: Equal access is not exactly a revolutionary principle. Nevertheless, we started hearing of opposition to the lawsuit from some individuals and organizations claiming to represent or be motivated by the interests of African-Americans or Latinos. Most appeared to agree that New York City’s outsider-restriction policy as applied to white neighborhoods was a bad thing, but lawsuit opponents wanted to salvage the policy for African-American and Latino neighborhoods. That is, they were only supporting – often in the guise of wanting to preserving neighborhood “culture” – the perpetuation of what they saw as the “good kind” of segregation.

There is no good kind of segregation. It’s not the good kind to be stuck with under-performing schools or to have less access to medical care. It’s not the good kind when the police are able to peg their methods to the race or ethnicity of a neighborhood, or determine, by the same means, whether someone does or does not “belong.”

Given New York City demographics, the insistence on trying to maintain existing levels of racial or ethnic dominance reveals an especially high level of intolerance. If households throughout the city with income at 40 to 60 percent of area median income (AMI) were to apply to a housing development in proportion to their numbers, that would mean an applicant pool of about 26 percent African-American, 30 percent Latino, and 30 percent white. That mix certainly doesn’t seem to “exclude” African-Americans or Latinos, but, apparently, some outsider-restriction supporters feel that reflecting citywide demographics in the affordable component of buildings in the neighborhoods they want to “preserve” is unacceptable.

And most fundamentally, there is simply no justification from either a legal or moral perspective to claim, as some do, that a neighborhood is the turf of any racial or ethnic group. (Tell me if you disagree).

But the opposition to ending outsider-restriction is a logical outgrowth of what I described earlier as the transmuting of community into a term of exclusion. In other words, “Our families earning $36,000 a year deserve the housing more, and will be more invested in their homes, than your families earning $36,000 a year.”

A related observation about the term “community”: It is impossible to go a day in New York without hearing someone describe – entirely un-selfconsciously – what “the community” or, more explicitly, what the “African-American community” wants, as though there were any chance that it would be just one thing. In the contexts of outsider-restriction and affordable housing more generally, the thing described as being universally wanted is staying put.

That posture, though, has little to do with representing the breadth of views of actual New Yorkers. ADC performed an extensive field study last year entitled They’re Our Neighborhoods, Too. We surveyed more than 600 respondents – overwhelmingly African-American, the balance Latino; 40 percent of respondents with household income less than $30,000 and 65 percent with household income less than $50,000 – as to their willingness to consider affordable housing in different locations. 69 percent of respondents were prepared to consider affordable housing in at least one borough outside the one in which they were currently living; 60 percent were prepared to consider affordable housing in at least one New York City suburb.

It is bad enough that those favoring the residential status quo ignore all those voices. What is worse is that they present the outsider-restriction policy as an antidote to gentrification and displacement.

This is absolutely false. Under the equal-access policy that we seek, all units will still go exclusively to those families who are income-eligible. Affordable housing insiders and outsiders, in other words, are financially identical. It is an separate question as to where the level of eligibility is set – although it is worth noting that, with less of a neighborhood-centric frame, advocates wouldn’t perversely insist that areas of concentrated poverty remain so, but would push to hold governments to the performance metrics of increasing the citywide and region-wide number of housing units available to those earning 40 percent of AMI or less.

(It is also worth noting that, contrary to oft-repeated rhetoric, having community district incumbents compete for housing on a level playing field with their fellow New Yorkers does not “deny them” the benefits of improvements that are, belatedly, occurring in neighborhoods that had long been hard-pressed. Not winning the lottery does not equal eviction, and those neighborhood improvements—investments in schools and parks are perhaps the most visible, though enhancing the economic vitality of a neighborhood is just as real– redound to the benefit of all neighborhood residents, whether newcomers or long-timers.)

Loose rhetoric pretending that maintaining outsider-restriction can fight displacement also diverts attention from the actual hard work that needs to be done. I take the need for housing security very seriously. But the way to fight harassment, eviction, and displacement is not by supporting the perpetuation of segregation … it’s by fighting harassment, eviction, and displacement.

The de Blasio administration deserves credit for ramping up anti-eviction efforts (just as it deserves more credit than it has gotten for putting mandatory inclusionary zoning in place, something no more than a pipe dream during the preceding 20 years of Mayors Giuliani and Bloomberg). But there is much more that should have been able to be done over time.

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As detailed in Let Them Rent Cake, for example, the goal of former Governor George Pataki’s 1997 “reforms” to rent regulation was to destroy that system. Some of that was to be accomplished by vacancy decontrol, some by luxury decontrol. Not all neighborhoods were immediately affected in the same way (neither rent-regulated units in general, nor higher-priced rent-regulated units, are evenly distributed throughout the city). But, even leaving aside considerations of solidarity, the practical impact throughout the city should have been clear. (If someone is priced out of the Upper West Side or Greenwich Village this year, that process is directly related to what developers think they can get in Clinton Hill next year.)

So activists in all neighborhoods should have been alarmed and spurred into action by the threat to rent regulation and its citywide consequences. But those with a strictly localist approach ignore or deemphasize those things that are not seen as having an immediate impact on home-base. Because that localist view was widespread, pro-regulation advocacy (and the building of citywide tenant power more generally) was less effective than it otherwise would have been (adjusted for inflation, for example, the vacancy decontrol rent level “achieved” under Governor Cuomo – and of which he boasts – is worse for tenants than the initial level put in place by Governor Pataki). Note that the same problem occurred in terms of anti-harassment legislation, but with neighborhood roles reversed: less effort was put into fighting for the strongest legislation by those focused exclusively on (wealthier) neighborhoods where harassment was less of a problem, and so all tenants got was the weak tea anti-harassment legislation (missing even attorney’s fees for victims of harassment who prevailed) served up by former Council Speaker Christine Quinn.

And what about the need for commercial rent regulation, to make sure that neighborhood residents of moderate means are able to buy something other than a designer sweater or an artisanal latte? Or the need to make it more difficult to convert rental buildings to coops under non-eviction plans, plans that right now don’t require the participation of a single existing tenant and encourage coop plan sponsors to force existing tenants out?

Those kinds of legislative efforts require cross-border coalition-building. Organizing 101 says that a winning coalition cannot thrive in an atmosphere of race- and neighborhood-based one-upmanship about relative need for affordable housing (when people across the city are suffering).

All very well and good, you may say, but people in my neighborhood are on the receiving end of a one-way expulsive force. They have nowhere to go.

I say: exactly! Maintaining-the-status-quo as the only strategy represents a staggering failure of imagination among advocates. What New Yorkers need to know is that mobility will be made to flow in all directions. That means opening all neighborhoods more equally to affordable housing opportunity. Yes, that means the neighborhoods of white Brooklyn, white Queens, and white Staten Island that have seen little or no affordable housing built. Yes, that means the neighborhoods of white Manhattan (where cross-subsidy from market-rate units is highest). It even means local development organizations throwing off their self-imposed geographic shackles, taking an interest in suburban segregation, leveraging their decades of experience, and fighting to build mixed-income housing in, for example, one of the 19 Westchester towns and villages with African-American population of less than 2 percent and with wildly exclusionary zoning that perpetuates segregation.

What about aging in place? Click on the photo to read a response to this op-ed.

Daniel Iam

What about aging in place? Click on the photo to read a response to this op-ed.

In the end, everyone knows that affordable housing will remain a too-scarce resource, even under the best conditions currently imaginable. That resource can be used to perpetuate segregation or to reduce segregation. That’s the choice. The decision should be an easy one. A program of housing security and housing mobility honors the needs of those who wish to stay in place, the needs of those who wish to move to what they see as greater opportunity, the need to end the legacy of residential segregation, and the vision of “one city, rising together.”

Unfortunately, I expect that for the foreseeable future, many will cling to the notion that one neighborhood or another belongs to one racial or ethnic group or another. For me, I’m going to continue to insist that all of our neighborhoods – city and suburban – have to come to belong to all of us.

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Craig Gurian is Executive Director of the Anti-Discrimination Center. From 2010 to 2014, he was also the editor of Remapping Debate, a public policy news website. His published work includes Let Them Rent Cake: George Pataki, Market Ideology, and the Attempt to Dismantle Rent Regulation in New York.