The Dream Revisited

Community Preferences Discriminate

by Errol Louis | November 2015

New York City is one of the most segregated urban areas in the United States. Indeed, the Civil Rights Project at UCLA recently called New York’s schools the “most segregated in the country.” This is not surprising given the University of Michigan analysis suggesting that the New York metropolitan area is second only to Milwaukee (among metros with a population greater than 500,000) in metro area black-white residential segregation. As Craig Gurian, who filed the lawsuit that motivated Rafael Cestero’s post defending the city’s Community Preferences policy, points out: “these patterns didn’t drop from the sky. The city participated in the creation of segregation; it’s obligated to now try to end that segregation.”

What Mr. Gurian’s lawsuit should provoke New York City’s progressives to ponder is whether we are genuinely committed to integrating our city. A truly fair housing policy is one that allows all people access to all of our neighborhoods. The city’s Community Preferences policy works against those values. Maintaining 50% of a community district’s affordable housing for “insiders” is a politically convenient arrangement that ensures Black, White, and Latino neighborhoods will stay as segregated as they currently are.

Mr. Cestero provides a thoughtful critique of Mr. Gurian’s lawsuit, drawing from his decades of experience advocating for those who have borne the brunt of New York’s segregated history. But he hardly takes into account the realities of the City’s segregated present and the forces that maintain it. He mentions segregation a couple of times, but only in passing—merely to acknowledge that the problem exists. The hard truth is that, contrary to Mr. Cestero’s arguments, if we are serious about dismantling segregation, we must take on the city’s Community Preferences policy.

What purpose does the Community preferences policy serve? For Mr. Cestero it is about maintaining the “fabric” of a neighborhood when more affordable housing is built there. This is the same sort of “there goes the neighborhood” logic that brought about white flight and has foiled integration for decades. If integration is to happen, neighborhood “fabrics” simply cannot be preserved whole cloth.  Most New York City neighborhoods are either less than 10% White or less than 10% Black. That is the fabric of our neighborhoods.

The city’s Community Preferences policy is also patently unfair.  Why should half or more of the affordable units in a new development – subsidized by every one in the city – exclude people who don’t happen to live nearby?  There is no question that people who have worked to improve their neighborhoods after decades of disinvestment should not be once again forsaken by urban politicians as neighborhoods improve. But the Community Preferences policy does not touch on the true forces of displacement at work in our city. Mr. Cestero may be right to be worried about unchecked gentrification, but gentrification is driven by higher-income individuals, not the construction of more affordable housing. Community Preferences is a regulation that pertains only to the latter.

The Community Preferences policy serves to preserve the politically convenient status quo. It allows city officials to overcome anti-affordable-housing NIMBYism in rich white neighborhoods without desegregating them. Politicians of color can embrace the policy since it allows them to preserve their political bases and to win political points for opposing displacement. This status quo is precisely what we need to change if we are to achieve integration. Ending Community Preferences is no panacea, but it is an important step on the road to dismantling segregation.

Errol Louis is a CNN Political Commentator and the host of "Inside City Hall," a nightly political show on NY1, a New York all-news channel. He tweets at @errollouis..

More in Discussion 17: Community Preferences and Fair Housing