OpEd: How Local Governments Can End Housing Discrimination on Long Island

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The federal and New York State governments have started the new year by taking promising steps toward ending housing discrimination. Now we need local governments on Long Island, one of the nation’s 10 most racially segregated metropolitan regions, to be part of this effort. 

Long Island’s two counties include a total of more than 100 villages, towns, and cities. That web of jurisdictions keeps racial segregation in place through home rule: the power of local governments to control what may be built in a neighborhood and who is permitted to live there. Ending racial segregation in housing, therefore, depends on actions by local governments, too. 

Within a week of his inauguration, President Joe Biden issued an Executive Order on housing discrimination that has two fundamental components: first, it recognizes the extensive role of federal, state, and local governments in advancing housing discrimination historically; second, it initiates the undoing of two major initiatives of the Trump Administration that undercut fair housing. One of those initiatives would block implementation of the statutory obligation to “affirmatively further fair housing.” The other would nullify the Fair Housing Act’s Discriminatory Effects standard, under which a policy’s impact is as relevant as its motivation. 

Two recent New York State actions have similarly reinforced fair housing. First, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced a targeted package of reforms aimed at increasing homeownership rates in communities that have been adversely impacted by redlining, the government-sanctioned housing discrimination that long prevented home loans in communities of color. 

Second, three State Senate Committees released a joint report on housing discrimination on Long Island. That report, which responds to testimony that I and others presented at the Committees’ hearings, calls for a series of reforms, including the following: creation of a New York State Fair Housing Strategy; more proactive enforcement of fair housing laws, including via testing; enhanced training for real estate licensing and renewal plus other brokerage industry changes; increased penalties for violators of fair housing laws; and ensuring government at all levels is part of the solution by taking concrete steps to address discrimination and segregation. That last recommendation pointedly stresses the need for local governments to be “part of the solution.”

In that connection, local governments on Long Island should take the following actions:

First, every local government – county, city, town, and village – should examine its role in residential racial discrimination and segregation and announce concrete steps to affirmatively further fair housing. Those steps should include the following: Examine patterns of racial segregation within the jurisdiction, including if People of Color (POC) are excluded from the jurisdiction; in cases where neighborhoods lack People of Color, ensure that any new housing is aggressively marketed to attract racially excluded groups; implement campaigns to make clear that housing discrimination by realtors or residents will not be tolerated and notify authorities if discrimination is suspected; ensure that all neighborhoods receive equal public services and that those occupied by racial minorities are not neglected. 

Second, the process of developing multifamily housing, which is key to offering the range of options needed to end housing discrimination, should be streamlined and more predictable. Local governments should significantly increase the number of areas zoned “as of right” for such development. They should also encourage the redevelopment of vacant facilities such as commercial buildings and strip malls as mixed-use and mixed-income properties. They should not wait for developers to come to them but should encourage builders to present proposals for land that has already been rezoned. 

If development proposals must be reviewed by more than one governing body – a zoning board and a town board, for instance – the review process should be coordinated to allow presentations to both bodies simultaneously. The review process overall should be less expensive for developers, who factor its length and uncertainty into the cost of the resulting housing.

Third, local governments should advance inclusion through a wide range of housing options, including rental properties, and eliminate discriminatory restrictions on who can benefit from them. Some communities have geographic preferences for multifamily units, prioritizing people who already live in the community. Those preferences merely reinforce existing racial segregation or exclusion and usually violate fair housing laws.

In that context, a coalition of housing advocates, including ERASE Racism, is backing a bill just introduced in the State Legislature to legalize accessory dwelling units – smaller homes on the same lot as a primary residence, such as basement apartments and garage conversions. With the explicit Fair Housing provisions in this legislation, more affordable and flexible housing options within all Long Island communities would be provided, Here, too, it is vital that the beneficiaries are not limited by prioritizing, for instance, family members or other community residents.

Historically, all levels of government have advanced housing discrimination. Now, all are needed to eliminate it. 

The federal and state governments are taking concrete actions to that effect and must do much more. But local governments must act, too. Local governments on Long Island have a special responsibility, given the extent of racial segregation that local jurisdictions have overseen.

Elaine Gross is president of ERASE Racism, the regional civil rights organization based on Long Island.

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