The New York Housing Compact offers new promise for ensuring equity | Opinion

·4 min read

When Gov. Kathy Hochul announced plans for statewide housing growth and density targets, some New Yorkers — especially in the suburbs — slammed the proposal, fearing that even modest growth would disrupt suburban life. The reality is that the governor’s Housing Compact provides an opportunity to address our housing shortage and eradicate decades of systemic racism.

Lost in the conversation, however, is an uncomfortable truth: New York’s land use and urban planning framework are relics of an era in which housing policy was explicitly racist. And that legacy of redlining and discrimination lives on through the neighborhoods, roads, and other public infrastructure we use every day.

A little disruption to these past practices is warranted. With the Compact, New York has a chance now to reverse this legacy, live up to its mandate to Affirmatively Further Fair Housing, and set an example for the rest of the nation. We should not miss this opportunity.

Gov. Kathy Hochul speaks about the state's housing crisis with Westchester business leaders at the Business Council of Westchester in Rye Brook March 15, 2023.
Gov. Kathy Hochul speaks about the state's housing crisis with Westchester business leaders at the Business Council of Westchester in Rye Brook March 15, 2023.

It is critical to understand how entrenched segregation and discrimination permeate public life in New York. New York City’s public school system, for example, is the most segregated in the country for Black and Latino students, and the city itself ranks as one of the most segregated in the United States.

Of course, these dynamics also extend to the suburbs.

Consider Long Island, where 50% of the Black population lives in just 11 of Long Island’s 291 communities and 90 percent lives in just 62, and explicit housing discrimination is rampant. Roughly half of Black and Latino Long Island students attend schools with at least 95% students of color.

In Westchester County, exclusionary zoning and persistent fights over affordable housing have contributed to rampant segregation in that suburb. The list goes on and on.

Let’s be clear: this did not happen by accident.

According to the Regional Plan Association — a leading urban policy organization in the New York area — single-family zoned communities are predominantly white, while communities with multifamily homes are mainly inhabited by people of color. And when new apartment buildings are constructed, particularly affordable homes, they are almost always concentrated in historically disinvested neighborhoods and/or communities of color where there is limited access to public transportation, education, and green space — by design.

In other words, the decisions we make about where and when to allow new housing opportunities have ripple effects for generations. As we bolster the needed housing supply throughout the region, we cannot continue to create and maintain discriminatory and segregated living patterns.

We should consider these implications when evaluating the goals of the Housing Compact, which would mandate growth targets of three percent over three years for downstate communities around New York City, including both Long Island and Westchester. The Compact would also require towns with MTA rail stations to undergo a local rezoning process or produce a greater density of buildings along train lines, to promote more desirable, convenient, and sustainable living.

The plan is an apparent attempt to catalyze housing production statewide, including in communities that have been gated for too long. But it is not draconian. In fact, local governments will have choice and power over the direction of their municipality.

Towns can choose how to meet their density targets. That could include townhouses near a Long Island Rail Road or Metro-North station for first-time homebuyers or new duplexes in which a variety of diverse households can live. Or perhaps they choose to develop one or two apartment buildings. The only option not on the table is a continuation of racist exclusionary practices.

Notably, the plan has an enforcement mechanism to prevent municipalities from dodging these new goals, which will avoid the lack of accountability that occurred after the enactment of the Fair Housing Act in 1968. If a town or city doesn’t meet new growth targets, the appeals board will approve proposed projects — including the development of affordable housing — unless there is a compelling health or safety reason for opposition.

The potential here is transformative. Access to true affordable and inclusive housing is one of the most effective ways to shape society positively: it improves mental and physical health, facilitates children’s opportunities for educational success, and increases economic opportunity for all. And for too long, those advantages have been denied to many in New York’s suburbs.

This is what is at stake: a chance to build a better future in the New York area for us, our children, and our children’s children. And we can make New York the best version of itself.

It is an opportunity to erode the effects of the ugly legacies of racism and discrimination that should no longer define us.

Britny J. McKenzie, MSW, is policy manager of the Fair Housing Justice Center.

This article originally appeared on Rockland/Westchester Journal News: New York Housing Compact will address systemic inequity