Segregation Issue Complicates de Blasio’s Housing Push

Mireya Navarro, New York Times, April 15, 2016

As New York City tries to spur construction of tens of thousands of apartments to meet an accelerating need for below-market-rate housing, a deeper problem has largely gone unmentioned by municipal officials: the persistence of residential segregation in one of the world’s most diverse cities.

Nearly 50 years after the passage of the federal Fair Housing Act, segregated neighborhoods remain entrenched around the country, a result of decades of discrimination and a byproduct of powerful, present-day economic forces, like New York’s punishing real estate market.

Now, the unfinished business of eliminating such segregation has become a renewed focus of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, which last year adopted a rule requiring local governments to set realistic goals to reduce barriers to choice in housing, and advance integration–or risk losing federal housing funds.

New York is celebrated for its wealth of nationalities, ethnicities and languages. But the melting pot image belies the reality that much of the city remains divided along racial or ethnic lines. In dozens of neighborhoods, a single racial or ethnic group predominates, at rates of 70 percent to nearly 90 percent in areas like Washington Heights in Manhattan, Tottenville on Staten Island and East Flatbush in Brooklyn.

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With his pledge to build 80,000 affordable units over 10 years, Mayor Bill de Blasio has a chance to alter racial housing patterns, not just to reshape the market.

But integrating neighborhoods is a complicated undertaking. In New York, it has put housing advocates at odds with civil-rights defenders in a way that places pressure on Mr. de Blasio, a liberal Democrat who considers himself an ally of both.

There are difficult trade-offs to grapple with. Redeveloping low-income areas can increase diversity by bringing in higher-income residents. But it can also end up pricing out existing residents. Doing the reverse–investing in affordable housing in more expensive areas–can draw in low-income residents. But government subsidies often do not go as far in such neighborhoods, with the potential result that fewer rental units are priced at affordable rates.

Diversifying the demographic makeup of neighborhoods can also, in some cases, dilute the political clout of ethnic or racial groups.

These tensions have been on display in the battles over the de Blasio administration’s efforts to rezone lower-income neighborhoods to build both market-rate and below-market-rate units. Housing advocates have pushed for more city-subsidized apartments for the poorest of households to be set aside in the East New York section of Brooklyn, the first area targeted for redevelopment. Their fear: that the higher rents that often follow development will lead to a so-called whitening of a neighborhood that is mostly black and Latino.

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Over all, no one racial group makes up more than a third of the city’s population, and some neighborhoods have become more mixed in recent decades. Yet, as the de Blasio administration’s housing plan acknowledges, nearly half of the city’s 59 community districts, whose boards advise elected officials, are dominated by a single racial or ethnic bloc. Community districts with nonwhite majorities tend also to be the most disadvantaged, census figures and research show, with lower levels of educational attainment and higher rates of poverty and crime.

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The challenge, from the perspective of housing advocates, is how to protect low-income residents from displacement as neighborhoods improve and market-rent newcomers drive up housing costs.

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City officials say the key to holding displacement at bay while building mixed-income communities is to do more both to preserve existing rent-regulated units and to monitor harassment by landlords who illegally evict tenants to take advantage of rising rents in gentrifying areas.

Some say it also helps to take a long view.

“We need to be willing to look at the big picture and not at a neighborhood at a time,” said Xavier de Souza Briggs, a Ford Foundation vice president and author specializing on economic opportunity and segregation. “If we choose to fight for affordability only, one neighborhood at a time, that would trade away inclusion. It tends to perpetuate that segregated geography.”

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