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Opening Acts: June 1, 2021

FHJC Resolves Racial Discrimination Lawsuit Against Westchester Community

TOWN OF EASTCHESTER AGREES TO END ALL RESIDENCY PREFERENCES AND PAY $635,000 TO SETTLE CASE

Today, the Fair Housing Justice Center (FHJC) announced a settlement in its federal lawsuit against the Town of Eastchester over racially discriminatory residency preferences in the Town’s Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) program and zoning code. The settlement was so-ordered by United States District Judge Vincent L. Briccetti.

Town’s Housing Voucher Program

FHJC’s complaint was based on an undercover testing investigation into the Town’s Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) program. Testers were told that non-residents faced a 10 to 15 year wait for a housing voucher, while resident applicants typically waited only eight months to a year.

By applying residency preferences and warning applicants of the wait, the Town discouraged non-residents, who were more likely to be Black and Latino, from applying to the program. FHJC alleged in its lawsuit that, as a result of the preferences, 75% of the Town’s voucher holders were white, compared to 18% of the voucher holders in surrounding Westchester County, even though 73% of applicants on the Town’s HCV waiting list were Black or Latino. Meanwhile, only about 15% of the Town’s voucher holders were Black and only 9% Latino, compared to 48% and 33% respectively in the county.

After FHJC sued the Town about its HCV program residency preferences, the Town abandoned its Section 8 program entirely in early 2019 rather than bring it into compliance with fair housing laws. At the urging and advocacy of the FHJC, the State of New York assumed operation of the Town’s Section 8 program, eliminated all residency preferences, and reordered the Town’s applications based on date of application and not residency.

Town’s Zoning Code – Senior Housing

FHJC’s lawsuit also targeted the Town’s zoning code provisions permitting mixed-income multi-family housing for seniors in certain zoning districts. The zoning classification required developers to use an even broader residency preference system for current and former Town residents and their immediate family members.

FHJC alleged that Eastchester had a history of racially discriminatory residency preferences in senior housing, including a 1975 agreement with the developer of 117-units of low-income senior housing. The Town’s Section 8 office oversaw the development’s waiting list and applicant eligibility determinations for decades, utilizing a residency preference system, until the program was halted by a letter from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in 2005. By that time, over 95% of building’s tenants were white, with one Black tenant.

FHJC alleged that Eastchester’s zoning code preferences violated the Fair Housing Act because they would exclude non-residents while favoring current and former residents who were predominantly white. Compared to Westchester County, the overwhelming majority of Eastchester seniors were white. In Westchester County, 66% of income-eligible households age 55-and-over were white, 17% were African American, and 14% were Hispanic. But in Eastchester, senior households with comparable incomes were 95% white.

At public meetings to discuss amending its zoning code and to consider applications for proposed senior housing, white Town residents made racially charged comments, aggressively pushing back against any changes that would lead to “a HUD project” being built, turning the Town into “a Bronx neighborhood” when “these people” move in. During and after the meetings, Town Supervisor Anthony Colavita strongly reassured residents that the Town would continue to enforce the residency preferences, and that the Town’s senior housing would only be for residents.

In 2019, the Town told developers of a new senior rental building that the zoning code required them to sign a restrictive covenant mandating residency preferences. Upon learning of this, the FHJC filed a motion for a preliminary injunction against the Town. The motion was resolved when the Town agreed that the developer could begin its initial rent-up without applying residency preferences.

Court Denied Town’s Motion for Summary Judgment 

In 2020, the Town asked the Court to dismiss FHJC’s case arguing that its abandonment of the Section 8 program in 2019 made FHJC’s claims moot; that FHJC lacked standing to be a plaintiff; and that there was insufficient evidence of either disparate impact or intentional discrimination for the case to proceed to trial. Judge Briccetti rejected all of the Town’s arguments and denied the motion in September 2020. (Read more about the denial HERE.)

Settlement Agreement Resolves FHJC’s Claims

Under the settlement, the Town agreed not to use residency preferences in its zoning code or in any affordable housing programs it may operate for 30 years, with any subsequent residency preferences subject to market and demographic impact analysis regarding race and national origin. In addition, the Town will amend its zoning code to eliminate residency preferences regarding senior housing and will revise its covenant with Elide Manor senior housing to remove all residency preferences. Finally, the Town agreed to pay $635,000 in monetary relief.

FHJC Executive Director Fred Freiberg stated, “Racially discriminatory policies and practices in land-use, zoning, and the operation of affordable housing programs still present formidable barriers to housing choice and reinforce residential racial segregation. Communities that impose and enforce discriminatory residency preferences and limit housing opportunities based on race or national origin invite costly legal challenges under fair housing laws.”

The FHJC is represented by Diane L. Houk with the law firm of Emery Celli Brinckerhoff Abady Ward & Maazel LLP.

FHJC’s investigation in this case was supported with funding from a Private Enforcement Initiative (PEI) grant received from the Fair Housing Initiatives Program (FHIP) administered by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

The mission of the FHJC, a nonprofit civil rights organization, is to eliminate housing discrimination; promote policies and programs that foster open, accessible, and inclusive communities; and strengthen enforcement of fair housing laws in the New York City region.