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John Petro

Look Who’s Coming to Westchester

When it comes to finding an affordable community to live in, most moderate-income households find that their choices are limited. Many communities have effectively shut out affordable housing options by preventing the construction of multi-family apartments or by requiring minimum lot sizes for homes. This ensures that the existing housing stock serves only the wealthiest residents. The result has been economic segregation and by extension, racial segregation.

A recent settlement in Westchester County, New York aims to reverse decades of economic segregation and what the lawsuit calls "existing and known impediments to fair housing arising from racial discrimination and segregation." Westchester County has agreed to build or acquire750 "affordable" homes or apartments for moderate-income families throughout the county. The agreement also stipulates that most of these homes must be in communities in which minorities make up a small percentage of the population.

Westchester was being sued by the Anti-Discrimination Center of Metro New York for allegedly failing to comply with elements of federal housing law. Westchester County received Community Development Block Grant funds but did not "affirmatively further fair housing" as it is required to do if it accepts those funds.

The real issue here is where affordable housing is located. According to the Wall Street Journal,

The agreement represents a "sea change in American policy," [Westchester County Executive Andrew Spano] said, because it guarantees access to fair and affordable housing "all over," as opposed to guaranteeing access in certain areas.

It is important for local jurisdictions to provide a mix of housing options for residents at different income levels. As more jobs are located in the suburbs, job access has become a significant issue for low-income workers who cannot afford to live in these communities and for the employers who need to fill those jobs. By shutting out the development of affordable housing, these communities cause even greater concentrations of poverty in other areas, usually center cities. This in turn causes greater strain on central cities as tax bases decline, school achievement suffers, and the quality of services decline.

It is a vicious cycle. These trends cause relatively well-off families to flee the cities, further exasperating the problem.

The Wall Street Journal editorial board laments the settlement, though, because they see it as "the government deciding where it wants people to live." But local governments have been deciding where people should live for decades by preventing certain types of development and restricting opportunity.

A regional approach to housing is needed to maintain a strong regional economy. Workers need to get to jobs in the suburbs. The suburbs need strong central cities to attract investment and business. By concentrating low and moderate income housing in certain areas, we detract from a metropolitan region's strength.

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Posted at 3:50 PM, Aug 17, 2009 in Housing | Urban Affairs
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