Gotham Gazette

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Segregation is Not an Excuse, Mr. Mayor; It’s Opportunity to Lead

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(Photo via Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)

Curbed NY recently reported that the vast majority of the affordable-housing units created under Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Housing New York plan are unaffordable to large swaths of the population. The ironic response from New York City’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) was that the policy promotes “diverse and integrated neighborhoods.”

This explanation is puzzling, to say the least, for integration advocates. The phrase “integrated neighborhoods” does not appear once in the mayor’s 117-page housing plan, and there is only a single reference to “fair housing.” “Diverse neighborhood” does appear frequently, but only to signify “affordable to more than one income group” - rather than a larger goal of opening neighborhoods where more resources and opportunities are clustered and where few affordable housing units exist.

The administration’s actions speak even louder than its words. Inclusionary housing - as its name suggests - should provide historically excluded populations with expanded housing choices including access to “higher opportunity” neighborhoods.  The de Blasio administration flipped this concept on its head with its mandatory inclusionary housing regime - 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.

The new law does not even include reasonable guidelines to ensure that affordable housing is built in areas that offer greater educational opportunity. The administration is fighting a lawsuit which seeks to eliminate the City’s outsider-restriction (or “community preference”) policy that appears to violate the Fair Housing Act.  Most recently, both HPD and the Human Rights Commission came out to testify against a modest piece of legislation that would have placed reasonable restrictions on housing co-ops to reduce illegal housing discrimination.

For school-integration advocates, this all feels familiar. In 2015, even as Chancellor Carmen Farina repeatedly dismissed the need for proactive school-integration policies, Deputy Mayor Richard Buery actively touted the benefits of classroom diversity to justify the universality of universal pre-K.  (Fortunately, towards the end of her tenure the chancellor started to bend and took some important steps forward.)

For fair housing advocates, the City’s actions fail to affirmatively further fair housing and merely continue a long history of actions by government and private real estate interests that effectively reinforce patterns of poverty concentration and residential racial segregation and fuel a vicious cycle of inequality.  

The administration invokes diversity and integration when convenient, while largely ignoring the pleas and policy prescriptions of school- and housing-integration experts. Occasionally, the strategy can feel divisive - creating a false opposition between the goals of caring for our most vulnerable citizens and dismantling the structures that produce and sustain racism, poverty, and inequality. At its worst, the strategy suggests that “diversity” is mere cover for an unfettered pro-development agenda that protects the interests of developers and many of the more affluent and predominantly white neighborhoods in the city. In any event, we see too many current school and housing policies as reinforcing the “tale of two cities” that the mayor himself campaigned against.

Continuing residential segregation by race and income is a condition that nourishes a host of inequalities including gentrification. We believe policies that produce meaningful integration in schools and housing are the best antidote to gentrification. As the federal government signals a clear retreat from enforcing the 50-year-old Fair Housing Act, we need local leadership on these issues now more than ever.    

As historic demographic changes threaten to transform every aspect of New York City, we urge the mayor to begin exercising real leadership - for New York City and for metro areas across the nation. The integration of our communities is neither a political liability to be ducked, nor a convenient excuse to be exploited; it is an opportunity to lead. Our organizations stand ready to assist and support all efforts to create schools and neighborhoods that are inclusive and equally open to all New Yorkers.

Fred Freiberg is executive director of the Fair Housing Justice Center. David Tipson is executive director of New York Appleseed. On Twitter @FredFreiberg of @fairhousingnyc and @AppleseedNY.

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