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The Dark Side of Community Preference Policies

Community preference policies give existing residents first dibs on subsidized housing built in their neighborhoods. But what happens when these policies are applied to communities that are exclusive, well-off, and majority white?

Eastchester Town Hall. Photo by Jim Henderson, via Wikimedia Commons

This article is part of the Under the Lens series

Whatever Happened To ...

To know where we’re going, we need to know where we’ve been. We need to take a look back at how promising or ambitious initiatives panned out, whether trends that seemed to be going strong stayed on course, and how thorny challenges were resolved. In our first official Under the Lens series, we revisit some of our past coverage to ask “Whatever happened to that?”

In 2019, Shelterforce published an article that looked at the debates over community preference policies, which gives existing residents priority to subsidized housing built in their neighborhoods. Proponents call these policies an important bulwark against displacement and an assurance that longtime residents can benefit from investment in their communities. Opponents call them obstacles to fair housing that make it harder for low-income residents to move out of segregated neighborhoods.

A development in Eastchester, New York, shows the potential dark side of such policies when they are applied not in communities facing the potential for displacement, but in communities that are currently exclusive, well-off, and majority white.

The story started on Nov. 21, 2016, when the Fair Housing Justice Center (FHJC) filed a federal lawsuit alleging that the Town of Eastchester, which is predominantly white, used residency preferences to suppress participation by people of color in the town’s Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher Program and senior housing developments. The policy put applicants who did not already live or work in the town onto a waiting list until all current residents had been accepted. Furthermore, the town prioritized residents based on length of residency, which also favored white households over Black or Latinx households. Town officials also did not advertise that those who worked in the town were eligible for the residency preference.

Eastchester Town Hall in New York. Photo by Jim Henderson, via Wikimedia Commons

“The federal Fair Housing Act prohibits predominantly white suburban communities like Eastchester from adopting and enforcing policies in land-use, zoning, or affordable housing programs that effectively exclude or limit access to housing opportunities based on race or national origin,” stated FHJC Executive Director Fred Freiber in a release.

In October 2020, Judge Vincent L. Briccetti found that there were “questions of fact as to whether the town’s residency preference will have an adverse disparate impact on Black and Hispanic renters and buyers” and noted that “the town had never received approval from HUD of the town’s use of residency preferences in its Section 8 program.” In one HUD-subsidized Eastchester senior development, 95 percent of its more than 100 tenants were white, with only 1 Black tenant. FHJC expert Justin Steil notes that “assuming a randomized applicant pool that reflects the demographics of Westchester County—the marketing region identified by defendant itself—the likely application pool for senior housing . . . in Eastchester will be 70 percent white and 30 percent nonwhite. But with the town’s residency preference . . . the recipients of such housing would likely mirror the demographics of the town age 55 and over: namely, 91 percent white and 9 percent nonwhite.”

[RELATED ARTICLE: Criticisms About Community Preference Policies Are Misguided]

The town closed its Section 8 program due to the controversy in 2019, but the court held that FHJC’s claims of intentional discrimination was backed by evidence gathered from community meetings where residents expressed fear that affordable housing developments would turn the town into “a Bronx neighborhood” and that “more Section 8 people will come in.” Briccetti maintained that “a reasonable factfinder could conclude that the town was motivated, at least in part, by its residents’ fears of racial integration when it enacted the senior housing law and residency preference.”

The judge’s 2020 decision allows FHJC to proceed with its case against Eastchester for racial discriminatory housing practices.

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