By mandating that residents only could apply for housing at the senior center, Eastchester effectively discriminated against racial minorities.
Westchester’s latest fair housing case has cost the town of Eastchester $635,000.
The case was brought by housing rights advocates who alleged that the town of Eastchester’s residency preferences for senior housing discriminated against racial minorities.
U.S. District Judge Vincent Briccetti approved the settlement, in which Eastchester agreed to dismantle the preference system embedded in its zoning code. The settlement came nine months after Briccetti denied Eastchester’s attempt to dismiss the case, which was initiated in 2016.
“It was a long fight,” said Fred Frieberg, executive director of the Fair Housing Justice Center. “We maintain that these residency preferences are unlawful because they discriminate, based on race, in a community like Eastchester that is predominantly white.”
The settlement, which was approved on May 28, comes shortly after the town of Greenburgh settled a federal fair housing case over the town’s opposition to affordable housing on Dromore Road in Edgemont for $9.5 million.
Westchester County, meanwhile, remains under a 2009 federal consent order to build 750 units of affordable housing to settle a False Claims Act lawsuit over the county’s failure to affirmatively further fair housing. So far, the county has spent more than $70 million to comply.
Research conducted by the center detailed how the residency preferences in Eastchester had resulted in housing complexes where tenant rolls were predominantly white. One building for low-income seniors was 95% white, with just 1 Black tenant.
Eastchester Town Supervisor Tony Colavita said that Eastchester taxpayers won’t feel the impact of the settlement as the town’s insurance carrier will pay the settlement and the legal costs incurred in fighting the civil rights case.
Colativa, who called the settlement, “no big deal,” said the town settled the case on advice of the insurance company attorneys. He wanted to keep the preferences.
“We felt strongly that the preferences allowed aging in place for our seniors, and that would be the best for our seniors,” he said.
Eastchester resident Janet Harrison, who is raising her children in a bi-racial family, said it took a civil rights lawsuit to spark action by the town.
“The town had to be forced to do the right thing, which is no surprise,” she said.
How eligibility worked
When the case began, Eastchester maintained resident and non-resident lists for Section 8 housing vouchers that pay a portion of an income-eligible tenant’s rent in the private housing market. Eastchester jettisoned that program, transferring its vouchers to Westchester County to administer.
The Fair Housing Justice Center found that one Black applicant had waited a dozen years on the town’s Section 8 list while it took a white town resident less than a year to receive a voucher.
“Racially discriminatory policies and practices in land-use, zoning and the operation of affordable housing program still present formidable barriers to housing choice and reinforce residential racial segregation,” said Freiberg. “Communities that impose and enforce discriminatory residency preferences and limit housing opportunities based on race or national origin invite costly legal challenges under fair housing laws.”
Though the town opted out of the Section 8 program, Eastchester maintained the town’s broad senior housing residency preferences, under which the senior apartments at Elide Manor were built. It gave a preference to residents age 55 as well as to immediate family of current or former residents, and relatives of town residents.
Colavita lamented having to eliminate the housing preference.
“If you are a senior citizen in Eastchester and your intention was to go to your same church, go to your same doctor and have family around you as you grow older, removing the preference was not good,” he said.
Colavita, whose father was Republican county chairman during the GOP’s heyday in Westchester in the 1990s, faces Democrat John Eickemeyer in the November election.
Eickemeyer, an attorney, said the lawsuit should have been resolved much quicker. He said the broad range of preferences in the zoning code went far beyond anything that was necessary to address the needs of Eastchester residents, with its broad range of preferences.
“If the preferences were more narrowly tailored from the outset,” he said. “It would have been much more defensible if it was limited to only Eastchester residents.”
He acknowledged that crafting such preferences would not be allowed under the settlement.
Nevertheless, Freiberg said that residency preferences would most likely not be allowed under the Fair Housing Act in a suburb like Eastchester. The Fair Housing Justice Center has won similar cases against housing preferences in the towns of Yorktown and Bedford, and the village of Great Neck Plaza.
“If that residency preference can be shown to have a discriminatory effect on protected populations, it is likely unlawful under the Fair Housing Act,” said Freiberg. “To get a Section 8 voucher in the City of New York, there’s a residency preference, but it is lawful because New York City is very diverse. In contrast, Eastchester is not very diverse so a residency preference there would effectively reduce access by African American and Latinx potential applicants.”
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