Shaking Up Suburbia

During last year's endless Democratic presidential primary, wonks and activists who cared about integration usually preferred John Edwards to Barack Obama. Edwards' platform called for a million new housing vouchers to help poor families move to safer communities with better schools. And Edwards would have provided subsidies to suburban school districts willing to enroll low-income city kids.

Obama, meanwhile, focused on "Promise Neighborhoods," an anti-poverty strategy based on the Harlem Children's Zone. Select inner-city neighborhoods would be flooded with resources meant to improve health, education, and quality of life. In New York, the strategy has yielded encouraging dividends, and the 2010 federal budget provides a modest $10 million to expand the project to other cities. But Promise Neighborhoods do not alleviate racial and socioeconomic isolation, one of the leading predictors of a child's academic achievement and ability to find a decent job after high school.

Now Obama's critics -- and last year, I was one -- ought to take note: The president's integration agenda is stronger than expected. Through a landmark legal settlement earlier this month with suburban Westchester County, just north of New York City, the federal government has sent a warning to affluent communities nationwide, telling them it will now be much more difficult to shut their gates to lower-income families. It is the most unequivocal stance against segregation taken by any recent administration.

In a case brought by the Anti-Discrimination Center, a New York City nonprofit, federal Judge Denise Cote ruled in February that Westchester had "utterly failed" to meet the government's requirement that jurisdictions receiving Community Development Block grants "affirmatively further" fair housing. The Department of Housing and Urban Development then stepped in, brokering a settlement that requires Westchester to build 630 affordable homes or apartments in communities that are currently less than 3 percent black and less than 7 percent Latino. The units will cater not to the poorest of the poor but to the middle class; for rentals, a family of four can qualify if they earn $53,000 or less annually. For owner-occupied units, the cut-off family income is $75,000.

"We are going to apply this [settlement] to the other 1,200 jurisdictions around the country that receive block grants," says HUD Deputy Secretary Ron Simms, who spearheaded the agency's involvement in the Westchester case. "We now know that we can predict life outcomes by zip codes. We can predict relative earnings of children by zip code, morbidity rates by zip code. And so HUD has two strategies: The one is the restoration of communities, so we can begin to mitigate impact by zip code. But the other is to do what has to be done, which is to provide people choice."

Westchester, long known as one of the nation's toniest suburbs, is a particularly symbolic place for the Obama administration to announce its integrationist intentions, especially after decades of both the federal and local governments routinely ignoring fair-housing regulations. Since 1968, communities across the country have had to submit to HUD regular reports on impediments to fair housing for low-income people and minorities, as well as plans to redress those inequities. In her February ruling, Judge Cote wrote that all of Westchester's fair-housing reports were "false or fraudulent" -- and that HUD turned a blind eye.

This pattern has been replicated in jurisdictions across the country. According to Ed Gramlich, director of outreach at the National Low-Income Housing Coalition, under both the Bush and Clinton administrations, attempts by advocates to lobby for stricter enforcement of fair-housing rules were met by "tremendous political pushback" from HUD political appointees and local governments.

Though Westchester is often thought of as über-affluent, the county's demographics are actually quite complex. Since 1950, increasing numbers of working and middle-class African Americans have migrated from inner-city New York into Westchester, in search of safe streets and decent schools. But as the black population grew, Westchester became more and more segregated, with every new affordable housing unit constructed in towns that already had significant black populations -- such as Yonkers, White Plains, and Peekskill. The problem compounded as Hispanic immigration to Westchester increased in the 1980s and 1990s, and these communities, too, became segregated in a small number of neighborhoods. Through all of these changes, local municipalities acted knowingly, enacting zoning that prevented the construction of high-density rental housing in white neighborhoods. The county never intervened.

My hometown, Ossining, serves as a cogent example: The town includes two villages, integrated Ossining and lily-white Briarcliff. Between 1990 and 1999, six affordable housing units were built in Ossining, which was already 27.7 percent Hispanic and 19.3 percent black. But in nearby Briarcliff, which is nearly 90 percent white, zero affordable housing units were built.

On Aug. 14, The Wall Street Journal editorial board suggested that Westchester's segregated neighborhoods were a matter of personal choice. "Social engineers who want to force the issue risk creating more problems than they solve," the editors wrote. "Most people believe in integrated neighborhoods provided they're a consequence of genuine choice, not the government deciding where it wants people to live." But without the presence of affordable housing, many families simply can't consider moving to the communities with the most highly regarded schools and public services. In that context, "choice" is meaningless.

The Obama administration's desire to do away with such blatant segregation tells us a lot about the administration's policy priorities. For starters, there has been a lot of curiosity about the White House Office of Urban Policy, which is led by former Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrion. But when it comes to progressive urban planning, the action, at least so far, seems to be at HUD under Secretary Shaun Donovan. HUD's focus is really on metropolitan regions -- large conglomerations of cities and their suburbs. In part that is why the Westchester settlement is so significant: It signals that suburban villages have the same responsibilities as nearby cities when it comes to alleviating poverty and improving quality of life for low-income families and minorities. There is also a focus on environmental sustainability: The settlement requires the new affordable housing units to be situated within easy access to public transit. And HUD has told jurisdictions it expects more equitable access to parks and grocery stores with fresh produce.

This agenda is significantly broader than that of past Democratic administrations. "I don't think at the time of the Clinton administration these environmental and fair-housing issues were being thought about together in such a sophisticated way," says Margery Austin Turner, director of the Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center at the Urban Institute.

Still, fair-housing advocates warn that the proof will be in the pudding. Though the Westchester settlement is sure to give a scare to segregated suburbs nationwide, nothing will change if HUD doesn't get serious about enforcement, even in the absence of a court case. To do that, HUD staff must be reassigned to the task of assessing and implementing each region's fair-housing report. Simms says that is exactly what will happen. But to a certain extent, the success of the Westchester settlement depends on the cooperation and good faith of local towns, which control zoning. So it's encouraging that the settlement requires Westchester to sue municipalities that refuse or delay the construction of affordable housing by failing to change their zoning laws. A court-appointed monitor will oversee the entire process.

"There's never been a sustained commitment to housing desegregation on any level of government -- Democratic administrations or Republican administrations," says Craig Gurian, executive director of the Anti-Discrimination Center, which litigated the case against Westchester. "The Obama administration has expressed this political will, and I'm gratified by that. But there's a lot of work ahead. And I will tell you that the single most important thing as we go forward now -- on whether this transformative potential is realized -- has to do with implementation."

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