Affordable housing laws aren’t stopping segregation

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.

Decades of government-sanctioned practices are responsible. In the early part of the 20th century, zoning laws that prohibited blacks from living in white areas were commonplace. When those were struck down by the Supreme Court, white communities turned to racially restrictive covenants.

These covenants were legally enforceable until 1948 and continued in informal practice for years after that. At the same time, popular federal lending programs used overt racial formulas to refuse mortgage loans for homes in minority neighborhoods.

Deprived of access to credit, housing prices in these communities plummeted while white suburbs thrived. In rural parts of the South and Midwest, all-white “Sundown Towns” posted signs warning blacks to get out before dark.

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.

This isn’t about public or Section 8 housing. Affordable housing simply means that households earning up to 80 percent of the area median income won’t have to spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing. In Westchester this amounts to a monthly rent or mortgage of roughly $1,500 — hardly slum prices.

Based on the number of moderate to highly segregated communities out there and the number of municipalities that take CDBG funds (more than 1,200), it is likely that many have been merely paying lip service to the program’s fair housing requirements.

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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