Opening Acts: November 21, 2016

Westchester Town Sued for Racially Discriminatory Housing Programs

FHJC Investigation Found Town of Eastchester Residency Preferences Discriminate Against African Americans and Hispanics

Today, the Fair Housing Justice Center (FHJC) filed a lawsuit in federal court (SDNY) alleging that the Town of Eastchester in Westchester County maintains and enforces discriminatory residency preferences that suppress minority participation in the Town’s Housing Choice Voucher Program and senior housing developments, deny housing opportunities to African Americans and Hispanics, and perpetuate residential racial segregation. In the lawsuit, the FHJC alleges that the Town’s residency preference is a de facto racial preference.

The Town’s Housing Choice Voucher Program uses a general preference, for households in need of rental assistance such as those that have been involuntarily displaced, and a residency preference, for households already living in the Town.  However, the residency preference trumps the general preference, and applicants who do not already live in the Town remain on a waitlist until all applicants with ties to the Town have been admitted.  An FHJC testing investigation revealed that, while residents of the Town wait from several months to two years for a voucher, non-residents wait ten to fifteen years.  By applying residency preferences and warning applicants of the wait, the Town discourages non-residents, who are more likely to be African-American and Hispanic, from applying to the program. As a result, in Eastchester 75% of the Town’s voucher holders are white, compared to 18% of the voucher holders in Westchester County. Meanwhile, only about 15% of voucher holders in the Town are African-American and only 9% Hispanic, compared to 48% and 33% respectively in the county.

The Town also adopted a residency-based preference system in its zoning code for senior housing, in which a minimum of 15% of senior housing units are rented or sold to senior citizens 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 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.

“This case is a stunning example of government action that preserves white privilege and advantage in the administration of housing programs, including a federally subsidized rental subsidy program.  Actions like these are appallingly consistent with our nation’s long history of restricting minority access to housing opportunities and benefits in order to maintain residential racial segregation,” said the FHJC Executive Director Fred Freiberg.  Freiberg added, “The federal Fair Housing Act requires that communities receiving federal assistance operate housing programs in compliance with civil rights laws and in a manner that affirmatively furthers fair housing.  It is our responsibility to ensure that federal tax dollars are never used to subsidize housing discrimination or perpetuate residential racial segregation.”

The lawsuit seeks to stop the Town from using or enforcing the discriminatory residency preference policies and seeks damages and other injunctive relief to bring the Town into compliance with fair housing laws.  The plaintiffs are represented by Diane L. Houk and Hayley Horowitz 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.