A little over a year ago (August 17, 2017), one of the authors wrote an opinion piece for City Limits Magazine entitled, “Missing the Target on Segregation.” It was written from a community development perspective and made the argument that to disagree with community preferences (let alone sue over them) without “a countervailing demand that the city affirmatively, deliberately and aggressively seek to rezone and finance new construction of affordable housing — affordable to the very people being displaced elsewhere — in low rise, affluent (and yes) White neighborhoods is the height of irresponsibility.”
It was readily admitted that the current community preference policy was not rational, but maintained that “to exclude people from opportunities for improved housing in the very neighborhoods that were the only neighborhoods that they were permitted to live in for generations does not only belie arguments made on fair housing grounds, but represent a modern day racist approach to housing redevelopment, not unlike the racist approaches of racial zoning, restrictive covenants, redlining and urban renewal.”
These were very strong words based upon very strong sentiments — sentiments that we now believe may be over-stated and missing the point.
About a month after that article was published, we were invited by Enterprise New York and the Fair Housing Justice Center (FHJC)—along with many others from the affordable housing, supportive housing, legal services, human rights and fair housing sectors—to participate in what was billed as an Affordable Housing & Fair Housing Regional Roundtable. The impetus for this collaboration was a 2015 lawsuit (Winfield v. City of New York), which challenged the city’s Community Preference policy—a policy that gave priority for apartments to local residents for 50 percent of the new apartments being offered for leasing. The lawsuit, brought by three Black lottery applicants for a project in Manhattan, claimed that the local preference policy furthered segregation and violated the Fair Housing Act. The Manhattan neighborhood they applied to live in is predominantly (approximately 70 percent) White. The goal for the proposed collaborative effort was to provide a forum for education and discussion targeted towards mutual agreement on how to reconcile Fair Housing/Anti-Discrimination policy with local efforts to counter gentrification and displacement within New York City communities of color — those communities almost exclusively targeted for rezonings and massive “affordable housing” development under the current mayor’s 10-year housing plan.
The first few meetings were somewhat tense, to say the least. At an early meeting, one of our community development colleagues stated that if the Fair Housing justice community wants dialogue they should drop the lawsuit. From the Fair Housing justice side, responding to a comment about how community preference was necessary to protect the very people the Fair Housing Act of 1968 intended to protect, it was stated that anyone who is in favor of community preferences was against civil rights. It seemed the battle lines were being clearly delineated.
But this has not been the case. With excellent staffing support from both Enterprise and the FHJC, and the assistance of Bennett Brooks, Senior Mediator at the Consensus Building Institute, our monthly general meetings and interceding committee meetings have been civil, informative, sensitive, and collegial. And although no definitive consensus has been reached, those of us with an urban, mostly New York City perspective, better understand the challenges of working for housing justice in suburban areas, where Home Rule prevails and where the only housing that can be built as of right are single family homes. This, of course, discourages the development of higher density, affordable housing.
This dilemma is exacerbated by the need for environmental reviews to accompany any discretionary action by local authorities. Oftentimes, these reviews provide ready excuses for refusing permits on the grounds of insufficient infrastructure, over-crowded schools, traffic concerns, air quality, noise, and the like. Also, there has been the stark recognition that community preference in White suburban areas means continued White exclusivity in these same neighborhoods. We even heard stories about preference guidelines that were so restrictive (to keep out minorities) that they had to be revised several times in order to fill the development.
On the Fair Housing side, there is a growing appreciation for the dilemma faced by those of us who develop supportive housing. Even admitting that community preference is not rational and even arbitrary in terms of targeted geography and targeted beneficiaries, the actual preference is often the only leverage a supportive housing group has to get community board approval for one of its projects. This is due to the pervasive position of nearly every community in New York City that maintains that they already are “over-burdened” and have done more than their “fair share” for the purpose of addressing public needs—particularly housing the homeless.
We would say that there is even a recognition of why those of us in the community development sector believe that people for whose benefit the Fair Housing Act was passed are being hurt by a one-sided application of Fair Housing laws focused on de-segregation. This is because people of color are being displaced—from formerly redlined areas that were depressed, disinvested, and partially destroyed—at the time when these same areas are now becoming neighborhoods of opportunity due to the infusion of public and private investment. In other words, without a local preference, and with Fair Housing requirements that force developers to advertise units in outside areas, including White-dominated neighborhoods, an implicit preference is being given to Whites who, by moving in, would accomplish desegregation, albeit perhaps at the expense of housing opportunities for local residents of color. Of course, this is exacerbated by recent city policy preserving the low rise character of many predominantly White New York City neighborhoods, even down-zoning them.
But in a recent discussion, some very basic assumptions of our sector were challenged—again, in a very respectful and collegial manner. We were asked about our main concern. Were we concerned with simply favoring one set of people over another—even if in the name of restorative justice? Or was our primary concern displacement?
Acknowledging that for most of us the primary concern was displacement, we were asked if we had access to data that demonstrated that the community preference system was actually benefiting those most at risk of displacement. We did not. Furthermore, we were asked if there were other ways of fighting displacement that may be more effective than a community preference. This led to a discussion of current city affordable housing programs that, some would argue, does not do enough to serve residents most at risk of displacement and homelessness. Others present called for specific reforms to the current rent stabilization law, which enables landlords to utilize vacancy increases and other legal means to systematically move apartment rents beyond the reach of local residents.
It was left as an open question as to whether this issue of community preference should be that which divides our sectors, or, given our main concerns regarding displacement, local family/community disruption, and homelessness, if perhaps the community preference issue is little more than a red herring that is obfuscating and preventing constructive collaboration. This is where we are at this point in our year-long effort and we look forward to ongoing discussions.
In closing, at this time, our most basic message to our colleagues in the community development field is to keep an open mind. This effort will soon expand to the larger universe of stakeholders whose sectors are currently represented at this roundtable. We look forward to continuing this discussion and anticipate an enlivened, informed and successful public summit sometime this fall.
Harry DeRienzo is the president of Banana Kelly Community Improvement Association. Kirk Goodrich is the director of real-estate development for Monadnock Development. Ismene Speliotis is the executive director at MHANY Management.