HUD has brokered what it is heralding as a landmark desegregation agreement that ends three years of litigation against Westchester County, N.Y. The deal requires the county to create affordable housing and market the majority of those homes and apartments to non-white prospects specifically.
Fair-housing advocates view this agreement in far broader terms for other municipalities around the country about their responsibilities for providing what HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan refers to as “geographic opportunity” to all buyers and renters, regardless of their race. Wade Henderson of the Leadership Conference for Civil Rights, stated that the Westchester agreement was “only the first step in resolving a persistent problem of housing segregation” across the country.
More than 1,000 municipalities nationwide receive federal housing grants or funding, according to Shanna Smith, president of the National Fair Housing Alliance, who participated in HUD’s conference call on Monday afternoon to discuss the details of the agreement.
“This is clearly a wake-up call,” said John Trasvina, HUD’s assistant secretary for fair housing. “HUD will no longer lay dormant its requirements that jurisdictions detail” impediments to fair housing and provide solutions.
Ron Sims, HUD’s deputy secretary, added that the agreement signals that the department would no longer “confine” its funding for affordable housing to neighborhoods of color, but would seek to expand funds to other communities that heretofore have resisted racial diversity. “It’s important for people to have a choice,” said Sims, “and this is a new era.”
Later this month, HUD intends to issue new guidelines and requirements for municipalities that receive federal money for fair housing about how they use and track this money.
The impetus that drove the agreement with Westchester County is a suit filed in 2006 by the nonprofit Anti-Discrimination Center to compel Westchester to enforce fair housing goals. The suit called on the county to certify to HUD that it considered race an impediment to fair housing, and to document and analyze those impediments.
Initially, county officials disparaged this complaint as “garbage,” and insisted the county was in compliance with fair-housing mandates. However, a judge ruled earlier this year that the county had misrepresented its efforts to desegregate largely white communities between 2000 and 2006, when the country received $52 million in federal housing and community development block grants and funds. Between 2000 and 2008, the county built 2,013 affordable housing units, but fewer than 400 were in 29 municipalities that represent 80% of the county’s land and 40% of its population.
“Westchester is deeply, deeply segregated,” said Craig Gurian, executive director of the Anti-Discrimination Center. He estimates that 120,000 acres of land in Westchester County (out of a total of 433 square miles) meet the population criteria established in the pact with HUD.
The agreement, which was filed in Federal District Court in Manhattan on Monday morning, states that over the next seven years the county must build or acquire at least 750 homes or apartments, 630 of which will be placed in towns and villages where blacks account for 3% or less of their populations, and Hispanics 7% or less. (There are about one million residents in Westchester.) Half of these housing units must be priced for low-income buyers, and HUD is encouraging transit-oriented construction.
To finance this effort, the county must add $30 million to its capital budget, plus pay the federal government another $21.6 million, which the government will then place into the county’s HUD account to be used to build affordable housing in those areas.
The court has appointed James E. Johnson, a member of the law firm Debevoise and Plimpton, to monitor Westchester’s compliance with the agreement, which also compels the county to undertake and fund targeted marketing, public education and other outreach efforts.
Westchester’s Board of Supervisors has 45 days to approve this agreement, as well as a $32.9 million bond sale to help finance the housing, according to the New York Times. (The agreement includes a $7.5 million payment to the Anti-Discrimination Center, and another $2.5 million to cover the Center’s legal fees.)
John Caulfield is senior editor for BUILDER magazine.