In the latest chapter of a 26-year legal saga challenging racial discrimination in south Williamsburg housing projects, the city Housing Authority and Hispanic and Hasidic advocacy organizations recently reached a settlement that will toughen monitoring of tenants moving in and out of the buildings, and require that more black and Hispanic families be moved in.
The agreement settles an action brought by the Puerto Rican Legal Defense Fund, which first sued the city over housing discrimination in 1976. In its most recent challenge, PRLDEF argued that NYCHA’s lax monitoring doomed an earlier agreement that was supposed to bring more Hispanic and black families into three predominantly Hasidic housing projects: Bedford Gardens, Jonathan Williams Plaza and Taylor-Wythe Houses. The city’s lack of oversight amounted to “an informal policy of replacing Hasidic families with Hasidic families and maintaining strict racial quotas,” said Marty Needelman, chief counsel for Brooklyn Legal Services Corporation A, who worked on the lawsuits until 1995.
Both NYCHA and PRLDEF confirmed they’d reached an agreement but would not comment on the case until federal Judge Robert Sweet approves the settlement, which he is expected to do by the end of June.
Under the agreement, NYCHA will offer Section 8 housing vouchers to the first 150 families who volunteer to leave their homes in the three housing developments and look for affordable apartments on the open market. The agency agreed to then rent those empty apartments primarily to minority families from Williamsburg on the city’s long waiting list for public housing. In addition, the settlement mandates that the city notify both PRLDEF and the United Jewish Organization of Williamsburg–which has been advocating on behalf of the Hasidic families in the buildings–each time an apartment transfer takes place.
Minority families and advocates have been battling with NYCHA over their Williamsburg housing policies for decades. When PRLDEF first filed suit, the group alleged that the city was granting preference to Hasidic applicants for open apartments in the three buildings. They discovered that, at that time, the Housing Authority had quotas to fill between 60 and 75 percent of the apartments with white tenants. In 1978, a federal judge ordered the Housing Authority to stop using quotas, but PRLDEF continued its litigation, seeking a remedy for previous decades of discrimination. Its first agreement with the city, reached in 1980, temporarily gave preference to black and Hispanic families seeking open apartments, and moved to ultimately make the approval process color-blind.
That did not quite happen, though. Nine years later, they returned to court and got the city to agree to place non-white families in the next 190 available apartments. While NYCHA did fulfill that requirement, the ratio of Hasidic to Hispanic families remained the same, according to Needelman. So in 2000, PRLDEF returned to court to pursue the latest deal. Needelman is cautiously optimistic about the outcome: “It’s very disappointing that the city and the housing authority didn’t get the message that discrimination and favoritism in housing aren’t acceptable. And now? We shall see.”