For eight years, Rob Astorino has led Westchester County, New York in its refusal to comply with the terms of a federal consent degree to hasten the integration of New York City’s racially stratified wealthy northern suburbs.
Ten times, the county submitted a self-satisfied examination of how county zoning impacts racial segregation and what leaders planned to do about it. (Conclusions: It doesn’t; nothing.) Ten times the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development rejected that “analysis of impediments.”
In April, a few weeks after HUD deemed the county’s latest effort “unacceptable,” a federal appeals panel declared that Westchester—the swath of small towns and cities between the Hudson River and the Long Island Sound—was “engaging in total obstructionism” by failing to comply with the 2009 settlement. That agreement, signed by Astorino’s predecessor, was the result of a U.S. District Court ruling that Westchester had “utterly failed” to comply with the Fair Housing Act. The Anti-Discrimination Center sued Westchester in 2006 after the county accepted $52 million in HUD grants but falsely certified in the paperwork that it had conducted a proper fair housing analysis.
Then came Lynne Patton, Trump family party planner turned HUD administrator. In June, Patton took office as the head of HUD Region II, which includes New York and New Jersey.
Lo, the 11th time was the charm. On Friday, HUD Regional Director Jay Golden wrote that Westchester’s latest analysis—which, like its previous efforts, did not find any evidence of exclusionary zoning in the county—was good enough, although Astorino staff told the Journal News the document was “essentially the same” as its precursors.
“Westchester vindicated!” Astorino wrote on Twitter on Wednesday afternoon. “HUD capitulates after 7 years. Zoning not exclusionary—like we said all along. #honor”
In April, HUD regional director Jay Golden wrote to Westchester that its analysis of impediments was “unacceptable.” Golden’s letter faulted Westchester for failing to acknowledge both the segregation of white residents and of minorities in towns like Larchmont, Pound Ridge, and Ossining.
As an example, Golden cited the county’s analysis of the Village of Sleepy Hollow, which concluded there was no correlation between zoning and concentrations of black and Hispanic residents. “This conclusion is not supported by the data presented in the analysis,” Golden writes. “Areas zoned as multfamily/two-family have 8.5% African American population and 57% Hispanic population, compared to less than 1% and 10% respectively in single family housing residential zoned areas.”
The county’s strategies to overcoming impediments (most of which it had denied) included “fair housing posters, attending award ceremonies, and participating in panel discussions.” Those also struck HUD planners as insubstantial.
The most recent letter from HUD to Westchester is just one paragraph, with Golden writing that he “appreciates the County’s commitment to reaching an amicable resolution in this matter.” Still, the analysis appears to have barely changed. With respect to Sleepy Hollow, for example, the revised document concludes simply that “both minority populations reside throughout the village.”
Astorino had made resistance to the consent decree his calling card, both locally and in his failed 2014 bid to unseat Gov. Andrew Cuomo. In an ad that aired in Nassau County, the Long Island home of Levittown, a suburban street sprouted high rise apartments as the blue sky turned black and yellow. (Westchester’s Yonkers, where the HBO miniseries Show Me a Hero dramatized the racial housing animus of a previous generation, has its own agreement with HUD, as do the county’s other major cities—which also happen to be among the county’s 9 communities with double-digit black populations.)
Westchester also served as a rallying cry for a larger cohort of conservatives who saw the Obama administration’s attempts to enforce the Fair Housing Act as radical overreach. In a 2015 editorial that his later statements on housing have convinced me he did not actually write, HUD Secretary Ben Carson called Obama HUD Secretary Julian Castro’s policies a “government-engineered attempt to legislate racial equality.”
The Obama Administration didn’t pass any new housing laws. But it did try to finally fulfill the promise of the 1968 law to “affirmatively further fair housing.” Nixon HUD chief George Romney, who viewed racial segregation as the federal government’s preeminent housing challenge, made America’s most promising foray down this road with Operation Breakthrough, which tried to overcome local zoning restrictions as part of a larger national building campaign. Opposition, the New York Times wrote in 1970, was “based on public fear that Washington is simply trying to foist a fancy new form of public housing, with a preponderance of poor and black residents, upon the localities.” Opponents called the plan “socialistic” and “totalitarian.” Romney was subsequently dismissed, and Washington never touched the subject again.
At that time, federally enforced housing segregation was in every adult’s living memory. Today, it’s easy to pretend America’s segregated settlement patterns are a result of personal preferences and the racial wealth gap. In reality, they helped create the racial wealth gap—and have been, as Richard Rothstein succinctly shows in his new book The Color of Law, enforced through law and federal policy since the late 19th century. Zoning is foremost among those tools that enforce segregation: Single-family residential zoning was largely popularized as a way to circumvent judicial bans on racial covenants and racial zoning.
This is why the Obama-era HUD made cautious efforts to overcome the restrictions that keep the suburbs segregated. Its Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule asked jurisdictions to prepare reports on how zoning impacted racial segregation within their boundaries. More or less the type of document, in other words, that Westchester County was asked to draw up—and failed, 10 times in eight years, to do properly.
In the end, Westchester won: Its tenacious resistance outlasted reform politics at HUD. All it took was putting a party planner in charge.