URBAN OMNIBUS: Our Fair City
In his second term, Mayor Bill de Blasio has emphasized “fairness” in policies ranging from law enforcement to school desegregation to public health. Photo by Ed Reed via NYC Mayoral Photography Office
“Location, location, location” is the tired refrain of real estate agents. But it is more than a sales pitch: we’re more aware than ever of the impacts, positive and negative, that where we live can have on every aspect of our lives. School integration battles, lead poisoning in public housing, inaccessible subway stations, and flooding due to climate change are just some of this year’s local case studies in disparity. While New York takes pride in its diversity of all stripes, housing discrimination and segregation are still a persistent, punishing reality.
This year is the 50th anniversary of the federal Fair Housing Act, which outlawed discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, or national origin. New York has some of the most robust fair housing laws nationwide, which protect people from discrimination on the basis of 17 different kinds of identity, from citizenship status to gender — on paper if not always in practice. But the city, along with the rest of the country, has historically failed to engage another part of the law, which requires jurisdictions take steps to “affirmatively further” integrated, equitable housing. For the first time, the city is tackling discrimination and segregation head-on through an initiative dubbed Where We Live that will assess fair housing challenges and propose policy solutions for “integrated and balanced living patterns.” Six months into the process, reporter Abigail Savitch-Lew talks to advocates, policymakers, and residents to understand what it means to wrestle publicly with these intractable problems and the tensions between the many potential paths to “fairness.”
In February 2018, delivering his fifth annual State of the City address, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced his aim to make New York “the Fairest Big City in America.” The idea reflected a 2013 campaign promise to address the soaring inequality that had created a “tale of two cities,” as he so famously called it.
Entering his second term, the mayor said fairness required taking “that quintessentially American egalitarian spirit and mak[ing] it come alive again.” In listing twelve initiatives to achieve this goal, he emphasized that “nothing is more important than affordable housing.” He posed the basic question of fairness like so: “Will the people who built this city, the people who were here in good times and bad, will they get to stay in the city they love?”
De Blasio then implied that the administration’s affordable housing plan — an effort to build and preserve 300,000 units of affordable housing in twelve years — will ensure New Yorkers get a fair shot at staying. (Critics of his housing efforts thus far, it deserves mentioning, were unimpressed.)
The mayor’s choice of “fair” was an interesting one. This year also marks the 50th anniversary of the nation’s Fair Housing Act, and coincides with a national reckoning about the country’s unfilled promise to uphold that law — a reckoning that the de Blasio administration is now itself undertaking through a new assessment process to identify shortcomings and remedies.
The controversial 1968 Act passed a week after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., in answer to the widespread urban unrest that followed. It sought to address, as the Kerner Commission had identified earlier that year, the predicament that the nation was “moving toward two societies, one black, one white.” In the nation’s urban north, a potent mix of public policy, private action, and individual animus segregated Black people to proscribed areas and enabled the formation of white, exclusive communities. All levels of government participated in forging a segregated landscape, implementing policies from federal redlining, which denied insurance to loans made in Black neighborhoods, to city-sponsored urban renewal schemes that demolished neighborhoods of color and relocated residents.
In 1968, protests against segregated and substandard housing swept the country, including the “Open Housing” marches in Milwaukee depicted here. Photo via the Equal Rights Center
To counteract this legacy, the Act made “fair housing” the official policy of the United States, first by outlawing discrimination in the housing market on the basis of race, color, religion, or national origin. Second, it required the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) “affirmatively to further” the policies of the Act — meaning, as a co-sponsoring Senator wrote at the time, to take proactive steps to “create integrated and balanced living patterns.” While that first part of the law has been partially — many would say shoddily — enforced, the second provision was more or less ignored for decades.
As a result, levels of racial segregation, though they have declined, remain high. Between 1980 and 2010, white-Black segregation levels in U.S. metropolitan areas fell from 0.731 to 0.594 on the dissimilarity index — meaning 59.4 percent of white or Black metro residents would need to move in order for the spatial distribution of both groups to be the same. Black Americans are still more likely to live in high-poverty neighborhoods: In 2010, the average Black household earning $75,000 annually lived in a higher-poverty neighborhood than the average white household earning just $40,000 a year. Concerning, too, is a growing body of research revealing just how much where one lives determines one’s ability to thrive, impacting everything from health to school performance to income. In the face of these racial inequalities, some advocates have focused on fighting for equity without integration, others on making exclusive areas more inclusive — and some on both.
In 2015, the Obama administration tried to give teeth to the Fair Housing Act’s second provision by issuing the “affirmatively furthering fair housing” rule. This required that all jurisdictions, after carrying out a community engagement process, complete a guided Assessment of Fair Housing (AFH) that describes barriers to fair housing and proposes strategies to address those problems, to be resubmitted every five years. Fair housing was defined broadly to encompass a range of goals: creating integrated neighborhoods, addressing disparities in housing needs (measured according to whether certain groups are heavily rent-burdened, overcrowded, or living in substandard housing), addressing disparities in access to opportunities, and turning racially and ethnically concentrated areas of poverty into areas of opportunity.
In the eyes of advocates, it was a momentous step forward — but one quickly betrayed when the Trump administration suspended the rule in January 2018, postponing the deadline for implementation and launching a process to replace it altogether.
Some cities, including New York, have announced they will complete the assessment anyway. While de Blasio didn’t mention it in his “fairest big city” address, his administration’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD), in partnership with the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), was simultaneously launching Where We Live, a two-year engagement process that will result in the analysis required under AFH. The city plans to submit its report to HUD on time for its original fall 2019 deadline.
“Explore the Where We Live project website.”
“Decades in the making, the [Assessment of Fair Housing] was a long-overdue tool to help cities attempt to reverse patterns of segregation that hold our cities and our country back. The federal action is an unwarranted and irresponsible delay tactic,” wrote HPD commissioner Maria Torres-Springer in a January editorial. “Despite our strong and diverse economy, transit-rich neighborhoods, and leading institutions for the arts, culture, and education, opportunity is not shared equally across the city.”
In interviews, a variety of New York City housing and community advocates commended HPD for embarking on the assessment process and described HPD’s staff as seriously dedicated and open to hearing stakeholders’ perspectives. As Michelle de la Uz of the Brooklyn community development organization Fifth Avenue Committee puts it: “If an administration wanted to avoid the issue, certainly Trump’s election and pulling back on the rule would have been a perfect excuse.”
There have been many excuses for cities to ignore the affirmatively further mandate for decades, not least the difficulty of the task at hand. Using local planning tools and programs to address inequalities produced by racist and discriminatory decisions, both intentional and not, within a profit-driven economic system is a dizzying problem that requires confronting how we’ve fundamentally decided to structure our society.
Advocates have expressed varying levels of hope and skepticism about what might be the outcome of the new assessment, and how much leaders at City Hall will be willing to make the significant reforms they are demanding. “There’s a little dissonance between this process — in which they’re saying all the right things, and doing all the right things, and, I think, the individuals involved really do care about the issues — and the sort of pitiful history of promoting fair housing,” says David Tipson of the school integration organization New York Appleseed.
This map shows residential segregation by race/ethnicity based on census data. Orange represents white or Caucasian; green represents Black or African American; purple represents Asian or Pacific Islander; and blue represents Hispanic or Latino residents. Magenta outlines mark the boundaries of HUD-defined Racially/Ethnically Concentrated Areas of Poverty (R/ECAPs). Map via HUD Affirmatively Furthering
Despite its reputation for diversity, New York City has the second highest level of Black-white segregation among major U.S. cities, with a dissimilarity score of 81.6. That level has remained virtually stagnant since 1980. In addition, more than half of poor Black and Latino residents reside in high or extreme poverty neighborhoods.
The dissimilarity index is a demographic metric of the degree to which two groups are distributed evenly across a geographic area. Graphic via NYC Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD)
Like the country at large, New York City’s enforcement of the Fair Housing Act has been focused on the first part of the law: preventing discrimination in the real estate market. The city’s Human Rights Commission investigates and prosecutes discrimination, as well as carries out Know Your Rights campaigns. The agency’s budget has more than doubled since de Blasio took office, but advocates say discrimination remains extremely pervasive.
Since 1968, the federal law has been amended to include protections based on sex, familial status, and disability, and New York State and New York City have recognized numerous additional protected classes. Those legal protections only go so far, though, and obstacles to fair housing abound. For instance, New Yorkers with disabilities are often forced to live in inaccessible housing and in neighborhoods with ADA-incompliant infrastructure, or, against their preference, to live segregated from non-disabled people. While seven percent of the apartments in new, publicly-funded housing must be accessible, advocates say this is not enough, and that with a median income of only $22,000, disabled New Yorkers can’t afford many of these units and end up residing on the city’s fringes, far from services, doctors, and family.
This map describes the residential concentration of people with disabilities, based on census data and data from HUD. Graphic via NYC HPD
Critics say this administration, like past administrations, has ignored its duty to affirmatively further fair housing. As reported by Sally Goldenberg in Politico, while the administration says it has implemented some policies that further integration, the mayor has often emphasized building and preserving 300,000 units of affordable housing — and building market-rate housing, too, contending that the city faces a lack of housing generally — wherever possible and above all other goals. The administration has also been subject to lawsuits for actions that advocates say perpetuate segregation, from the Anti-Discrimination’s Center suit over the city’s community preference policy, which reserves a portion of new affordable units for current neighborhood residents, to Brooklyn Legal Corporation A’s two suits over redevelopment plans for Brooklyn’s Broadway Triangle that plaintiffs alleged excluded opportunities for Black and Latino residents.
The picture has also grown more complicated as capital has returned to American cities. “The shape of the territorial divide has morphed and is more complex, with many divides within cities and within suburbs,” writes Tom Angotti, a professor emeritus at Hunter College, in Shelterforce. In areas where there has been more racial and class integration as a result of gentrification, rising rents threaten to displace current residents. Putting “fair housing” into practice requires nuanced answers to difficult questions: When should policy strive for integration, and when instead for equitable neighborhoods? And can the city create equitable neighborhoods without causing displacement?
Advocates, while divided on certain policies, agree that a fairer city would require more housing opportunities available to low-income residents in what are commonly referred to as “high-opportunity areas” — typically affluent with low crime rates and high-performing schools — along with investments to improve historically disinvested neighborhoods for current residents. Many advocates draw attention to displacement as a barrier to fair housing, and believe the administration’s housing plan is failing to adequately deter displacement — or sometimes even exacerbating it — in gentrifying neighborhoods. They have a variety of other demands, including targeted efforts to address the needs of populations like disabled New Yorkers and criminal justice-involved populations.
“It’s not going to be easy,” says Fred Freiberg, executive director of the Fair Housing Justice Center (FHJC), a nonprofit that investigates housing discrimination and is one of the state’s leading fair housing advocates. “In many respects, it’s like holding up a mirror to yourself and saying, ‘What’s wrong with this picture?’”
Responding to a request for comment, City Hall did not admit to any tension between its housing plan and fair housing goals: “While the federal government is pulling back from Fair Housing, New York City has stepped up. Fair housing is central to this Administration’s mission to build a fair and equitable city and is baked into our plan to build and preserve 300,000 affordable homes by 2026 and invest in communities that have been under-resourced for too long.”
HPD officials were a bit more reflective. “Doing this requires us to take a pretty broad look at how various city policies impact fair housing,” says HPD’s Leila Bozorg. “It’s about stepping back and analyzing the fair housing implications of a lot of our work . . . What do we need to adjust, or what do we need to be doing that we are not already doing?”
A wide umbrella
The AFH guidelines required jurisdictions to engage a variety of constituencies in the process of developing a fair housing assessment. HPD, following one of HUD’s suggestions to create a task force of representatives, has formed a fair housing stakeholder group to assist the effort. In addition to the obvious choices — like FHJC and IntegrateNYC — HPD’s list of over 300 invitees includes groups that serve the disabled, LGBTQ residents, and immigrants, along with community development nonprofits, anti-displacement groups, researchers, banks, for-profit affordable housing developers, and many others. HPD reports that about 130 groups have been actively participating so far, along with 16 other city agencies.
This spring and summer, HPD hosted two roundtable discussions with stakeholders to identify the top contributing causes of segregation and of disparities in housing needs, and another four roundtables to discuss disparities in access to quality education, economic opportunities, transportation, and healthy environments—all aspects of life affected by where one lives. This fall, HPD will reconvene the stakeholder groups to brainstorm policy solutions, and next year the groups will meet to review HPD’s preliminary
One advocate expressed concern that NYCHA, HPD’s partner in the initiative, appeared to be taking a backseat in the process. NYCHA disputed this, explaining in an e-mail that the authority had been working closely alongside HPD to develop presentations and co-facilitate discussions. The spokesperson wrote that NYCHA public housing and Section 8 resident leaders are involved in those discussions, and that the authority aims to ensure residents’ “needs and experiences” are accurately reflected in the city’s assessment.
The Where We Live assessment process is broken into three phases, with ongoing fact-finding with stakeholders and the public. Graphic via NYC HPD
The city recently launched a new phase of engagement in collaboration with 13 organizations that serve a variety of people protected by anti-discrimination laws, such as Center for Independence of the Disabled New York, Asian Americans for Equality, and Banana Kelly Community Improvement Association Inc. It asked these organizations (without any city agency involvement) to facilitate “community conversations” with their members using a curriculum developed by Hester Street Collaborative, an urban planning nonprofit. (NYCHA, too, plans to host four community conversations with residents this fall.) The meetings to date have been closed to the general public and press; the city intends to host public workshops in 2019.
According to Hester Street project manager Casey Wang, the three-hour curriculum begins with a brief overview of fair housing history. Residents are then split into small groups, and facilitators guide them through activities to explore where they live, how that impacts their access to opportunities, whether they’ve faced housing discrimination in the past, and what their vision for a better, fairer city would look like, among other questions. A staff member of the organization takes notes, collecting qualitative data to be shared with the city. (Hester Street is also in the process of developing a downloadable toolkit that can be used by any group.)
In interviews, several participating organizations said that the curriculum is facilitating useful discussions with their members. Discrimination continued to be an important theme in several conversations, from LGBTQ seniors who said they’d experienced homophobia from neighbors, to South Asian immigrants who thought they’d faced discrimination by landlords or lenders on the basis of religion, ethnicity, and family size. But for many residents, one of the most daunting barriers to housing choice is cost: There are fewer and fewer neighborhoods where working-class people of any background can afford to live. This affordability predicament points to the need for the city to examine whether, where, and for whom its own housing plan is succeeding.
This map shows the availability of affordable rental housing (where affordable is keyed to <50 percent AMI), with the darkest areas indicating the highest density of affordable housing. Magenta outlines mark the boundaries of HUD-defined Racially/Ethnically Concentrated Areas of Poverty (R/ECAPs). Map via HUD Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing
If one goal of furthering fair housing is the creation of integrated neighborhoods, many of the city’s gentrifying neighborhoods appear — at least for the time being — to be statistical successes: According to Furman Center analysis, Bedford-Stuyvesant, for instance, transformed from two percent white in 2000 to 23 percent white in 2016. But Neighbors Together, a nonprofit that addresses poverty in East Brooklyn, said that while residents in their conversation expressed appreciation for improving conditions, such changes seemed to go hand in hand with skyrocketing rents and displacement. (New Orleans, which completed its assessment before the program was put on hold, used the term “windows of integration” to describe when an area is temporarily integrated, but soon becomes white and affluent as a result of displacement.)
“I’m for diversity, it’s awesome,” says Neighbors Together member and volunteer Fred Burgos, who was displaced from Williamsburg. “But the problem is when the big cash comes in, and pushes us out.” He adds that once a neighborhood has improved and reaches a certain tipping point, existing residents need to have more of a say over its future.
Fred Burgos is a Neighbors Together member and volunteer, and a former resident of Williamsburg. Photo by Abigail Savitch-Lew
Opening up exclusive neighborhoods
When tackling the complexity of furthering fair housing, Obama’s HUD rule advised a combination of “mobility” and “place-based” strategies: respectively, strategies that help low-income residents move to so-called high-opportunity areas, and those that aim to improve conditions in high-poverty areas.
Fair housing advocates see continuous failure on the mobility front. Compounding the legacy of redlining and other overt policies of the past, they say recent, ostensibly neutral, government actions perpetuate segregation. Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg downzoned many affluent white neighborhoods, preventing the construction of apartments and more affordable units. So far, roughly three-quarters of the de Blasio administration’s affordable housing preservation and construction projects have taken place in majority Black and Latino neighborhoods, according to Goldenberg in Politico. This trend may only be exacerbated by the administration’s rezonings of mostly low-income neighborhoods to allow developers to build bigger buildings in exchange for making a portion of units affordable.
Mayor de Blasio has promised to build or preserve 300,000 units of affordable housing by 2026. This interactive map, from HPD, details projects to date including new construction, preservation, and homeowner assistance.
The administration has explained its rezoning strategy as focused on areas where there is vacant land and more room for growth, and where land can be more cheaply acquired for the purpose of developing affordable housing. The administration also points out that two of its proposed rezonings are in affluent areas — Gowanus and Long Island City — and that in other high-cost neighborhoods, developers have initiated single project rezonings.
It is widely understood, however, that politics also plays a role. Given the City Council’s unspoken policy of deferring to the local councilmember’s decision on a land use change in the affected district, it’s easier to pass rezonings in historically disinvested areas — where local councilmembers are often eager to secure resources for their constituents — and more difficult to pass rezonings in neighborhoods where councilmembers represent powerful, affluent constituencies determined to block development.
To counter this trend, some advocates have called for the creation of a comprehensive, ten-year citywide plan, the likes of which hasn’t been drawn up since 1969. Councilmember Brad Lander of Brooklyn, author of the recent report Desegregating NYC, imagines neighborhoods throughout the city working together to recognize their shared responsibility to meet city needs, with neighborhoods agreeing to accept a fair share of density in exchange for commensurate levels of investment in infrastructure. In addition, advocates say the city needs to make a greater effort to develop public land in affluent areas; how many viable opportunities remain is a source of disagreement between the administration and advocates.
Beyond comprehensive analysis of land use policies, the city could also further mobility by considering strategies to help low-income New Yorkers who depend on government rental assistance to access apartments in high-opportunity neighborhoods. Fair housing advocates have called for the creation of a mobility counseling program that would help people with federally-funded Housing Choice Vouchers (Section 8) find apartments in affluent areas, both in the city and other parts of the region. They say such a program would be more effective with a different way of calculating the voucher’s value: Currently, Section 8 is capped at the fair market rent of the metro area, a level that can’t cover the rents demanded in more affluent neighborhoods. (While the Obama administration sought to address this issue with its Small Area Fair Market Rents initiative — in which voucher values are set to the fair market rent of neighborhoods — New York City officials worried that without a funding increase it would raise out-of-pocket expenses for voucher holders in low-income areas and got the city exempted.)
Lani Shepard, a Neighbors Together member and volunteer, struggled to leave the shelter system due to the low value of the city rental assistance voucher. Photo by Abigail Savitch-Lew
The city rental assistance vouchers for homeless New Yorkers are valued even lower. Lani Shepard, a Neighbors Together member and volunteer, says that voucher-holders are often “only going to be able to find a place in poor neighborhoods with bad conditions.” After suffering from several medical problems, then finding she could no longer stay with family, Shepard ended up in a shelter in East Brooklyn. She had difficulty finding housing in the private market due to the low value of her voucher, and considers herself lucky that, after 21 months in the shelter system, she was able to obtain an apartment in a supportive housing development.
Neighbors Together and others are urging the city to raise the value of its rental assistance vouchers to at least the fair market rent level. (The city says it can’t due to funding complications; it’s instead hoping the state will create a new, fair-market value voucher). In addition, although “lawful source of income” is a protected class under city law and it’s illegal for landlords to discriminate against voucher holders, advocates say more must be done to enforce the law. They propose further publicizing the Department of Social Service’s new Source of Income Discrimination Unit as well as training and mandating housing specialists to report source of income discrimination.
New Yorkers attended a town hall meeting on changes to the city’s rental assistance programs on September 25, 2018. The city has plans to consolidate its complicated system of rental subsidies, but many homeless New Yorkers want additional changes, including a higher voucher value. Photo by Abigail Savitch-Lew
In general, the onus is still often on tenants to recognize and report discrimination. Advocates have called for boosted funding for paired testing, in which two actors assume different identities to test whether a landlord is discriminating, as well as measures to end covert forms of discrimination, such as landlords’ use of credit scores to eliminate candidates. They’re also fighting for a bill that would require co-ops to disclose their reasons for rejecting applicants.
Despite the focus on integration, some participants in the city’s roundtables argued that segregation is not always a bad thing. For instance, ethnic enclaves can serve to help immigrants navigate the city and provide culturally-specific goods and services. But in interviews, advocates at Asian Americans for Equality and at Chhaya CDC (which serves the South Asian and Indo-Caribbean community) said that while some immigrants do want to remain in enclaves, those who would like to move have few opportunities to do so. For immigrants, the cost barrier is further compounded by other issues, such as lack of clarity about public benefits, or informal or inconsistent employment that makes it difficult to build credit.
This map shows the five most commonly reported nations of origin, with orange representing the Dominican Republic; green, China; blue, Mexico; purple, India; and black, Guyana. Magenta outlines mark the boundaries of HUD-defined Racially/Ethnically Concentrated Areas of Poverty (R/ECAPs). Map via HUD Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing
Revitalization without displacement?
It’s not just immigrants, of course, who might want to stay put. Residents of low-income communities may want to retain their existing homes and social networks while also seeing improvements to quality of life. “I love where I live. I was born and raised in the Bronx,” says Sonya Ferguson, a resident of the southwest Bronx and a recent attendee of a Where We Live conversation hosted by Banana Kelly. “Why can’t we just work where we at, and start building something better, so that we can live comfortably? Why do we always have to leave?” She values the way people on her block help one another in times of need, and is focused on resolving local issues with a neighborly spirit.
In the pursuit of fair housing, equally important as increasing mobility are “place-based” strategies that target resources to historically disinvested neighborhoods. Yet given the ever-widening threat of gentrification and displacement, the discussion over placed-based strategies can get thorny. While everyone seems to agree there must be investments to improve schools, create new parks and health clinics, and expand job opportunities to repair harms accumulated by decades of segregation and discrimination, the issue is ensuring those benefits actually accrue to existing residents.
A big disagreement — between the city and advocates, and sometimes between advocates — revolves around issues of housing policy in low-income areas. Community development groups like Banana Kelly and other neighborhood organizations have expressed concern that the de Blasio administration’s investments in low-income neighborhoods have been coupled with rezonings that, while aiming to result in the creation of affordable housing, carry the risk of triggering gentrification. Under the city’s mandatory inclusionary zoning law, a minimum of 20 to 30 percent of apartments in rezoned areas must be rented at below-market rates. But neighborhood groups argue that both the market-rate housing and even much of the below-market housing will bring in higher-paying tenants to the neighborhood, leading to rising rents and displacement.
The federal AFH guidebook lists displacement as an obstacle to fair housing goals because it pushes residents out of improving areas and segregates them in concentrated pockets of poverty. The guidebook lists preservation of existing affordable housing as a possible strategy to combat displacement, but it also lists “new construction of mixed income housing designed to integrate [Racially and Economically Concentrated Areas of Poverty]” as another potential fair housing strategy — exactly what some community groups fear.
Take the Bronx rezoning around Jerome Avenue, where the median income is about $26,000. One common subsidy program in low-income neighborhoods that could be used here must include at least ten percent of units for the formerly homeless and at least ten percent targeting families near Jerome Avenue’s median income. Yet a larger percentage would be for families of three making in the range of $56,340, and there could be units for families making as much as $93,900. HPD has justified these levels by arguing that it’s important to foster “diverse and integrated neighborhoods.” Yet Gregory Jost of Banana Kelly, which protested against the Jerome Avenue rezoning, says this would be a frightening interpretation of the “fair housing” mandate, one that serves to double down on the rezoning strategy.
The rezoning of 73 blocks along Jerome Avenue in the Bronx (intersection with the Cross Bronx Expressway shown here) would intersperse market-rate and luxury housing with affordable units. Advocates in favor of such rezonings have invoked integration as justification, while others fear that such construction will trigger displacement. Image via NYC Department of City Planning
In addition to community development groups, fair housing organizations, too, have taken issue with the city’s use of the terms “diverse” and “integrated.” In March, Freiberg of FHJC and Tipson of New York Appleseed wrote an editorial critiquing the administration for “invok[ing] diversity and integration when convenient, while largely ignoring the pleas and policy prescriptions of school- and housing-integration experts” and “primarily targeting some of the poorest neighborhoods of color for ‘affordable’ housing development with limited opportunities for the lowest-income populations to participate, putting them at considerable risk of displacement and homelessness.” Freiberg says that in low-income neighborhoods, the city should be focusing less on housing construction and more on investments in infrastructure, education, and other community assets.
When it comes to certain specific policies, however, fair housing groups and community development groups haven’t always seen eye to eye. They have disagreed over the city’s community preference policy — the subject of the Anti-Discrimination Center’s lawsuit — which community organizations favor because it gives a preference for neighborhood residents for half the units in a new affordable development, but which fair housing advocates say contributes to segregation. There was also disagreement about the Small Area Fair Market Rent program, which some fair housing advocates favored but which some community advocates and city officials feared. Fair housing and community advocates are now working to resolve some of these tensions in a working group convened by Enterprise Community Partners and FHJC, separate from Where We Live.
It’s not yet clear what approach to place-based strategies HPD will take. De Blasio’s affordable housing plan does include anti-displacement initiatives, from the preservation of existing affordable housing to funding lawyers for tenants facing eviction. Deputy commissioners Matt Murphy and Leila Bozorg emphasize their awareness of displacement as a major concern of many Where We Live participants. They say they intend to go above and beyond the Obama administration’s guidelines in analyzing the impact of displacement, and profess their commitment to thinking about how to ensure revitalization benefits existing residents. But they add that the agency must also consider how to meet citywide goals for units of affordable housing as well as consider whether building housing affordable only for existing residents could contribute to the concentration of poverty.
Policies not strictly about housing, per se, also have significant impacts when it comes to revitalizing neighborhoods. Policing is one of those. People with criminal records are not a protected class under the fair housing law, and can be denied housing by public housing authorities and, despite some legal protections, by landlords in the private market. It’s also legally possible for a landlord to evict someone who has been arrested even if, post-eviction, they are found to be innocent of the alleged offense.
Runa Rajagopal of Bronx Defenders argues that given the disparity in policing between white and non-white neighborhoods, criminal justice involvement is one of the most blatant mechanisms through which low-income New Yorkers of color are denied housing choice and access to opportunities. “You cannot talk about gentrification or fair housing without talking about policing, and how communities are policed and prosecuted,” she says. Some studies have shown higher levels of 311 calls, some leading to police involvement, in gentrifying neighborhoods or in areas where the boundaries between racial groups are fuzzy — one reason we cannot talk about the benefits of diversity without also talking about power and privilege.
Hope and skepticism
In meetings over the coming months, advocates will advance a number of policy priorities that address these wide-ranging concerns. They’ll demand measures to make affluent neighborhoods less exclusive and improve the enforcement of anti-discrimination laws. They’ll ask for investments in resources and infrastructure within impoverished neighborhoods, as well as strategies, such as expanding the cooperative economy, that ensure low-income communities have a say in what reinvestment looks like. Many will reiterate long-sought demands related to deterring displacement, including greater attention to the housing needs of families in the lowest income brackets, more funding for tenant organizers and tenant education in immigrant communities, and improved analysis of the way market forces — and city policies that fuel those forces — exacerbate displacement. A variety of recommendations will center the needs of the disabled — for more rental assistance, accessible units that are truly affordable, and accessible neighborhood infrastructure.
Some are hoping Where We Live will lead to greater investments in NYCHA’s crumbling public housing stock, as well as prompt the administration to reconsider its plans to develop NYCHA properties in affluent areas with a mix of market-rate and income-targeted housing, given that such parcels offer some of the few remaining chances to develop low-income housing in high-opportunity areas. (Though some others would rather see no development on NYCHA land at all.)
In many ways, furthering fair housing is about making sure the city is truly thinking through the racial impacts of all its planning decisions in every realm — implementing, for instance, better coordination between new affordable housing development and school districting. Some advocates want to see the de Blasio administration follow the lead of cities like Seattle in taking a racial equity lens to all city policies.
In the final report, as required in the AFH guidelines, the city will set out a series of metrics to measure its progress on the implementation of proposed strategies. While HPD intends to submit its report to HUD, there’s reason to doubt the federal agency will play a significant role in ensuring the de Blasio administration lives up to its promises. That means it will be up to advocates to ensure the city follows through with its proposed remedies.
Some advocates, pointing to the administration’s past stubbornness on its rezoning strategy, are skeptical of the potential for change. There are also limitations to what the city can accomplish on its own: arguably, the most crucial anti-displacement strategy is strengthening rent regulation, a prerogative of the state. The city also has limited power to make affluent suburbs more inclusive. And Angotti, the Hunter professor, points out that the original goal of the Fair Housing Act — ending structural racism — still requires other, colossal changes, including wealth redistribution and the end of mass incarceration — what he terms, “the ultimate expression of segregation.”
But some are optimistic that, given the recent school integration reforms spearheaded by the Department of Education under new chancellor Richard Carranza, the de Blasio administration is more committed than before to furthering fair housing. The City Council may also play a strong role. With the administration’s support, it recently passed a law requiring the city report on how its affordable housing plan furthers fair housing goals, and its charter revision committee will likely discuss making important changes to the city’s land use policies over the coming months. “I’m hopeful that we’re moving in a better direction,” says Councilmember Lander, adding that to take fair housing concerns seriously, and in a way that connects housing, city planning, and education policy, “is still a big, challenging, ambitious path, and we don’t yet know whether the mayor wants to go down it.”
And at the very least, advocates say, Where We Live is creating a new framework that will allow important conversations to move forward. “We’ll be able to collect information and data that we will be really able to hold up as examples of how fair housing has fallen short,” says William Spisak of Chhaya CDC. “It will hopefully inform our advocacy platform and provide us with more tools to hold the city accountable.”
The truth is that transforming the second-most segregated big city into the fairest one requires substantial resources and the deft navigation of competing definitions of fairness. A plethora of voices, however, may hold the answers for how the city could get there.