Affordable Housing Laws Aren’t Stopping Segregation

Rigil Oliveri, San Francisco Examiner, Sept. 24, 2009

Affluent New York City suburb Westchester County recently agreed to spend more than $50 million to build or acquire 750 affordable housing units in order to help desegregate some of its almost entirely white towns and villages. It only did so because it had been sued.

In February, a federal court determined that Westchester had taken virtually no action to fulfill its promise to use millions of dollars in federal Community Development Block Grant money to further fair housing.

The level of residential racial segregation in the United States is pronounced. Of the 50 U.S. metropolitan areas with the largest black populations, all show a moderate to high level of segregation. Westchester is unusually high.

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After the passage of fair housing and fair lending laws in the late 1960s, municipalities turned to more subtle tactics. Instead of relying explicitly on race, they exploited the “wealth gap” that decades of discrimination had created between black and white families.

Zoning boards imposed minimum square footage, setbacks and acreage requirements on homes in white areas, and limited the construction of smaller homes and apartment buildings to neighborhoods with larger concentrations of minorities. As a result, many black households who were leaving rentals or severely underpriced homes in the center of cities were unable to move into wealthy white communities.

One of the most effective ways to desegregate an all-white area is to create affordable housing opportunities there. This is generally what recipients of Community Development Block Grants are expected to do with at least a portion of the funds.

Local governments often resist doing so, fearing the ire of affluent white citizens who refuse to allow racial and economic diversity in “their” neighborhoods. Westchester, for example, limited most of its affordable housing to areas with higher concentrations of minorities, and built very little in its wealthy white communities.

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Communities may choose to ignore the effects of generations of racialized housing policies. But they can’t do so while taking federal money based on the explicit promise that they will use it to help correct this toxic legacy. Westchester is a warning that this isn’t just a moral failing. It’s illegal fraud.

Rigel Oliveri is an associate professor at the University of Missouri School of Law, where she teaches fair housing. She served for five years as a trial attorney in the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, Housing and Civil Enforcement Section.

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