Westchester County, N.Y. -- home to celebrities, politicians and business leaders -- fights a landmark court decree
LARCHMONT, N.Y. — Westchester County is far from the streets of Birmingham and the lunch counters of Greensboro, but the super-affluent suburban swath just north of New York City may be the premier civil rights battleground of 2011. Westchester is defying a landmark federal court order to desegregate housing in its whitest and wealthiest towns, prompting civil rights activists to return to court. The federal government has allowed wealthy municipalities to keep the poor and black out for decades, and municipal leaders nationwide are watching closely to see if the Obama administration forces the county to comply.
Tony Westchester locales like Scarsdale and Bedford have long been bastions of limousine liberalism, home to Ralph Lauren, Glenn Close, Martha Stewart, Bill and Hillary Clinton, George Soros, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and many others. Super-rich “entrepreneurs” like Donald Trump live here too, and it’s a haven for Wall Street bankers — from Jay Gould in the late 19th century to hedge fund pioneer Michael Steinhardt today.
Meanwhile, working-class black and Latino residents remain overwhelmingly concentrated in a handful of municipalities, most of which hug the Bronx border.
This is the case even though Westchester’s leaders signed a landmark consent decree in 2009, settling a lawsuit that accused the county of lying to the federal government about fair housing in its applications for federal funds. Officials agreed to build 750 units of affordable housing in the county’s whitest neighborhoods and to market the properties to potential black and Latino buyers. The court order also requires the county to analyze impediments to fair housing and to design an implementation plan to overcome them — with a stipulation that the county use all of its housing programs to support integration.
At the time, the agreement was celebrated as a milestone in fair housing and civil rights. But two years after the court order, Westchester had done nothing but ignore it. The county’s Republican-led government refuses to force predominantly white towns and villages to build fair housing; affordable units slated for construction are in largely nonwhite neighborhoods or commercial sites, exclusionary zoning ordinances remain in place, and the county has failed to submit a compliant plan to desegregate.
It was this record that led the Anti-Discrimination Center, which filed the original lawsuit in 2006, to return to court recently, charging that Westchester has “stubbornly and comprehensively refused to obey” the court order.
“This was a last resort,” said Craig Gurian, ADC’s executive director. “We would have much preferred that the government and monitor had enforced the decree.”
Westchester, like many other counties, receives millions of dollars in federal funds that require recipients to support fair housing. ADC sued Westchester under the False Claims Act, legislation typically used to sue for things like Medicare fraud, asserting that the county had misrepresented its performance on fair housing.
To avoid trial, Westchester signed a consent decree with the court. Wealthy and white municipalities around the country are now nervously watching to see if the court order is strictly enforced.
Gurian and other civil rights activists are looking to the Obama administration for help — but so far they aren’t getting any. Even though it was the federal government (through the Department of Housing and Urban Development) that Westchester allegedly defrauded, the Justice Department is joining the county in opposing ADC’s motions.
The federal government has always been reluctant to enforce integrated housing, and it refused to intervene in the ADC case until February 2009, when U.S. District Judge Denise Cote found that the “county’s certifications were false claims” and that it had “utterly failed to comply with the regulatory requirement.”
Integrated in name only
Westchester is building the 750 units of housing in places that will keep the poor, black and Latino where they already are, and preserve the racially divided status quo.
James Johnson, the federal monitor charged with overseeing the court order’s enforcement, says that Westchester is “making progress” under the consent decree and has proposed 175 units of fair housing, including 100 that should have financing by year’s end. Yet two of the biggest affordable-housing developments are adjacent to predominantly working-class areas with large nonwhite populations. The proposed affordable housing would actually perpetuate segregation.
Forty-six of the units are located in the exclusive village of Larchmont. According to Andrew Beveridge, a Queens College and CUNY Graduate Center professor of sociology and an expert witness for the ADC, the site currently has a low black and Latino population only because it has almost no population: It is on a census block with just seven residents. The site is also 500 feet from the city line of New Rochelle, a working-class city with large black and Latino populations.
The development is slated to go up behind a strip mall, pinned against railroad tracks and I-95. The heart of Larchmont, where the suburban dream of spacious single-family homes on ample green lawns thrives, is up a hill and around the bend, where the highway recedes and an upscale commercial strip emerges, including one store that bills itself as an “eco-forward lifestyle boutique.”
The new development, says Gurian, will be Larchmont in name only.
“All this housing says, ‘This isn’t Larchmont. This is for the affordable-housing people.’”
And Larchmont, with a median home value of $869,600 and a population that is just 1 percent black, is only mildly exclusive by Westchester standards. Nearby Rye is also 1 percent black and boasts a median home value of $1,009,200.
The 18 units slated for super-wealthy Rye, however, cannot be accessed directly from the city; instead, they are located directly across the street from the largely Latino village of Port Chester. The rest of Rye — sprawling lawns, tree-lined curvilinear roads, and white people — is across the vast expanse of two highways, I-95 and I-287. The planned development’s census block is 51 percent African-American and Hispanic.
Even more problematic, the units were initially conceived as senior citizen housing. The city is simply removing the age restriction in an attempt to bring the units into compliance with the court order. But the building plans haven’t changed — studios and one-bedroom apartments that are more appropriate for retirees than families.
Westchester spokesperson Donna Green disagreed, noting that a rather small family could, arguably, fit.
“No units with financing in place are designated for seniors. A one-bedroom unit can house a parent and child the same as it can house a senior.”
Beveridge also analyzed a 92-unit development in the town of Cortland next to a Veterans Administration Hospital and found that the census block had no residents outside of those living at the hospital.
Cities like fantastically rich Scarsdale (median home value of $1,030,900: Think gated landed estates with free-standing large-scale modern art) and white (again, a black population of 1 percent) have no fair housing planned, whether superficial or substantial.
The only black people this reporter encountered were working at the Balducci’s where I got a coffee. According to Beveridge, 25 Westchester municipalities have black populations of less than 3 percent.
The developments investigated by Salon all fall short of the decree’s requirement that units be built in the county’s whitest neighborhoods and that that they promote integration.
In a written statement, Donna Greene, the spokeswoman for County Executive Rob Astorino, rejected accusations that the proposed housing is segregated since “many of the eligible communities border municipalities with large non-white populations.”
Johnson was more circumspect, arguing that the sites are “within the ambit of what’s approvable under the consent decree” while conceding shortcomings. He says that he will soon announce “fairly clear standards” so “that units coming down the pike will be more advantageously located.”
Westchester failed to comply with two other core provisions of the court order, and Johnson acknowledged that he has yet to approve “several iterations of the implementation plan” and that “the Department of Housing and Urban Development has rejected the analysis of impediments.”
The county, however, claims that there are “no documents overdue” even though the implementation plan was due January 2010.
Gurian is furious, charging that the government is coddling Westchester while civil rights advocates have been shut out.
“It’s a bad sign when a civil rights defendant and the federal government are aligned against a civil rights organization. And I think it’s especially bad when the defendant, Westchester County, is head over heels in love with the federal monitor, Jim Johnson, who is supposed to force its compliance.”
The Department of Housing and Urban Development, the agency allegedly defrauded by Westchester, and the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, both referred requests for comment to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York. They declined to reply to a list of questions provided by Salon.
Criticism of the consent decree was a focal point of Republican Rob Astorino’s successful campaign for county executive in 2009, when he ousted Andrew Spano, the Democrat who (under legal duress, he insisted) signed the agreement.
“Big Brother is about to descend on Westchester towns and villages, and voters deserve to know why,” Astorino warned voters.
“Lots could be sub-divided, changing the value and character of neighborhoods” thanks to Spano’s handing “power to bureaucrats in Washington.”
When he left office January 2010, Spano defended his record in an interview with a local magazine, noting that the court order largely encourages housing affordable to the middle class rather than the poor.
“The issue got totally confused,” he lamented. “People thought we were going to be building high-rises. They thought we were going to bring low-income people into their towns. None of it was true. Scarsdale was the worst. You’d think people with that education level would know better.”
Gurian says that while Spano resisted desegregation, Astorino, who has made it clear that he will not sue municipalities to enforce the decree, has been “more openly and brazenly noncompliant.”
Westchester County was the nation’s first subdivided suburban archipelago. The arrival of commuter rail lines in the late 19th century transformed the idyll of super-rich country estates and castles (yes, castles) into a mass destination for the well-to-do or merely middle class seeking to leave the city behind.
Suburbanization intensified with the rise of the automobile and the construction of the Bronx River, Hutchinson River, Cross County and Saw Mill River Parkways in the early 20th century, and the arrival of the interstate highways during the 1950s and ’60s. The single-family whitetopia of Westchester would provide the raw material for the philandering and alcoholic suburban malaise of novelist John Cheever and AMC’s “Mad Men.”
“In the late ’50s and early ’60s, a lot of people left New York City, middle and upper-middle class, and moved to Long Island and Westchester to avoid the growing number of blacks and Hispanics,” said Jerry Levy, general counsel at Westchester’s Enhanced Section 8 Outreach Program. “If you had a little money, you went to Queens. But if you had more, you went to Westchester and Long Island. So Westchester became very entrenched as a middle-class and rich community.”
Many of the homes in many Westchester towns were bound by restrictive neighborhood covenants, which barred their sale to nonwhites. Getting away from affordable housing and minorities was why many people left New York City in the first place.
Earlier fights against segregation in Westchester were confined to working- and middle-class cities. On the heels of the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling against school segregation, for instance, the New Rochelle NAACP campaigned to integrate the city’s highly segregated schools. Black parents were arrested sitting in at a white school, and New Rochelle earned the moniker “Little Rock of the North.” But local officials resisted this push, contending that since it was de facto and not de jure, Northern segregation was acceptable.
It’s an argument that prevails to this day. In 2007, Yonkers ended a bitter 27-year legal battle over building projects on the city’s white east side, spending more than $20 million to resist the court and almost going bankrupt in the process.
Some continue to argue that black and Latino people are lucky to be able to live in Westchester at all.
“Westchester isn’t a bad place to be a member of a minority group,” according to Howard Husock of the conservative Manhattan Institute. “That’s because the taxes of the rich support a disproportionate share of the services provided by the county for all its residents, including minority households.”
“Westchester looks like South Africa,” countered Levy. “There are black townships and white neighborhoods. This is one of the most severely segregated communities.”
Indeed, Astorino last year vetoed legislation that would bar landlords from discriminating against Levy’s clients, holders of Section 8 housing vouchers — a move that seemed to contradict the consent decree’s requirement that the county use all housing programs to further fair housing.
“I don’t think they’re ever going to comply unless the government comes in and forces them to do it,” said Levy. “They’ll fight tooth and nail to resist it, and if they put the housing anywhere, they’ll put it in the least desirable areas. Politically, no government official in Westchester County is going to endorse any type of fair housing in this community because it’s a death sentence for their career.”
Given the lack of support from the county’s political leadership, Levy and his fellow activists are increasingly looking to Washington — and to the administration of America’s first black president — to enforce a decree that, if fully implemented, could make Westchester a model for integration.
“When I was a kid I remember Eisenhower sending federal troops down to Arkansas,” Levy said. “That’s where we are in Westchester County.”
(Image courtesy of Paul DeWitt of CensusScope.org and the University of Michigan’s Social Science Data Analysis Network)