Opening Acts: March 19, 2018

FHJC Alleges Suburban Residency Preferences Advantage Whites and Perpetuate Segregation

Amended Complaint Accuses Westchester Town of Intentional Discrimination Based on Race and National Origin

On March 16, 2018, federal Magistrate Judge Judith C. McCarthy granted the Fair Housing Justice Center (FHJC) leave to amend its complaint to allege that the Town of Eastchester has engaged in intentional discrimination based on race and national origin.  The new information was obtained from the Town through more than a year of formal pre-trial discovery in the pending case.

In the lawsuit filed in November 2016, the FHJC alleged that the predominantly white Town of Eastchester maintained and enforced discriminatory residency preferences that effectively suppressed minority participation in the Town’s Housing Choice Voucher Program (“the Program”), will deny minority applicants housing opportunities in senior housing currently under construction, and has perpetuated residential racial segregation.

The Town uses a local residency preference in its Program, which includes Town residents and applicants employed in the Town.  Applicants who do not meet this definition remain on a separate waiting list until all applicants with the preference have been admitted.  According to the Town, it gives most of its rental vouchers to white applicants even though most of the Program’s applicants are African American or Hispanic.  An FHJC testing investigation in 2016 revealed that, while residents of the Town wait from several months to two years for a voucher, non-residents wait ten to fifteen years.  The amended complaint alleges, among other facts, that:

  • As of June 2017, the “resident” waiting list had only 25 active names, while the “non-resident” waiting list had 616 active names. Because the Town awards an average of only about 20 vouchers per year, the Town knew that those on the non-resident waiting list had almost no chance of receiving a voucher while those on the resident waiting list would receive vouchers within a year, if otherwise eligible. Since 1976, fewer than ten people obtained vouchers who did not have the residency preference.  Because of the preference, a white applicant’s chance of receiving a voucher is eight times greater than that of a non-white applicant.  One example provided in the amended complaint involves a non-resident African American applicant who waited 12 years before receiving a voucher in 2017, while a white Town resident waited less than one month before receiving a voucher in 2016.
  • Even though the Town’s written policies state that applicants who are employed in the Town will be given a residency preference, the Town does not disclose this fact on its website, on the voucher application, anywhere in the Town’s Section 8 office, or in letters sent annually to applicants asking if they want to continue to be placed on the waiting list. Few applicants ever learn that they may qualify for a residency preference even if they do not reside in the Town.
  • When the Town selects an applicant from its waiting lists to receive a voucher, recipients are required to attend an orientation at the Town to learn about the Program. At that meeting, a Town employee gives recipients a map of “impacted areas” in Westchester County and encourages them not to move to those areas. The map is based on 1990 Census data, and purports to show areas of the County with more than 40% minority population and where 40% or more people live below the poverty line. Since most of the Program’s voucher recipients are white, this practice steers white recipients away from minority neighborhoods and perpetuates racial segregation.

The Town also created a special use permit in its zoning code for senior housing that includes residency-based preferences.  Developers may obtain a permit to build multi-family housing in which a minimum of 15% of housing units are rented or sold to households age 55-and-over earning less than 80% of the area median income for Westchester County.  The first preference is granted to Town residents, followed by immediate-family members of current and former residents, followed by Westchester county residents, and finally all other applicants.  For current and former residents, priority is given based on length of residency as well.  These preferences again favor white households over non-residents who are more likely to be African-American or Hispanic.  In Westchester County, 66% of income-eligible households age 55-and-over are white, 17% are African American, and 14% are Hispanic.  But in Eastchester, 65-and-over households with comparable incomes are 95% white, only 2% African American, and less than 1% Hispanic. For households below the income threshold and between age 45 and 64, only about 4% are African American and only 2% are Hispanic in Eastchester.  In addition, the amended complaint alleges, among other facts, that:

  • When the Town was considering amending its zoning ordinance to permit multi-family housing in 2009, some town residents expressed concerns about its effects to elected Town officials. At a Town Board meeting in 2009, a white resident and president of the North Eastchester Civic Association stated his concern that the proposed zoning ordinance could allow a “H.U.D. project” in the Town.  Town Supervisor Anthony Colavita responded that the senior housing permitted by the zoning code would be for “Eastchester, Tuckahoe, and Bronxville residents only.” He also promised that the Town would not “borrow” any HUD money for senior housing, saying that if a developer “took HUD money, they therefore couldn’t comply with our zoning code, therefore they couldn’t build a building and wouldn’t get permission.”
  • In or around January 2011, a developer sought a special use permit from the Town to construct a 103-unit senior rental housing development called Summerfield Gardens. While the proposal was pending approval, Town Supervisor Colavita sent a letter in October 2013 to Town residents responding to, as he put it, “numerous phone calls and inquiries” regarding the Summerfield Gardens proposal. He wrote that Town residents told him of rumors that the Town “is building ‘low income housing’ for a federal/state funded ‘low income housing project’ or that the Town of Eastchester is supporting the owner’s sale of the property to the County as part of its HUD Affordable Housing settlement between Westchester County and the federal government.”  Other rumors, he wrote, have circulated that the development would be “a housing project for non-residents or all age groups.” He continued: “ALL OF THE ABOVE IS COMPLETELY FALSE.” The letter continued: “[T]he application is for a brand new fair market value rental apartment building for our Eastchester, Bronxville and Tuckahoe senior citizens. . . . No part of the application is in any way related to any low-income housing, nor any federal or state funded housing nor does it have anything to do with Westchester County HUD Affordable Housing settlement conditions. These rumors are simply false. There are no proposed ‘housing projects’ being considered.”
  • A month prior to Supervisor Colavita’s letter, during a September 2013 Town Planning Board meeting to discuss the Summerfield Gardens application, a resident expressed concern that the development would turn the area into “a Bronx neighborhood.” Another resident worried that “more Section 8 people [will] come in, [and] we’re going to have the first project in Eastchester. That’s what it looks like to me, it looks like a housing project.” He warned the Planning Board that “these people” would move in “and there goes our neighborhood.” He asked another resident present at the meeting, who used to live in the Bronx, “Do you want this to become the Bronx again?” He continued: “This is not New Rochelle. This is not Yonkers. We don’t want this.”

The lawsuit seeks to stop the Town from using or enforcing its discriminatory residency preference policies.  FHJC seeks damages and other injunctive relief to bring the Town into compliance with fair housing laws.  FHJC is represented by Diane L. Houk, Allison Frick, and Ashok Chandran of Emery Celli Brinckerhoff & Abady, LLP.

The mission of the Fair Housing Justice Center (FHJC), a regional civil rights organization, is to eliminate housing discrimination; promote policies that foster open, accessible, and inclusive communities; and strengthen enforcement of fair housing laws in the New York City region.