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Momentum builds to eliminate housing discrimination


The new year is off to a promising start in the effort to eliminate housing discrimination, with significant actions taken by the federal and state governments. Those actions, and related ones that are brewing, represent significant new momentum and underscore the vital role that local governments on Long Island need to play in this evolving effort.

On Jan. 26, President Biden issued an executive order on housing discrimination that has two fundamental components: First, it recognizes the extensive role of federal, state and local governments in advancing housing discrimination historically; and second, it initiates the undoing of two major Trump administration policies that undercut fair housing. Those two initiatives would maintain housing segregation by, first, blocking implementation of the statutory obligation to “affirmatively further fair housing” and, second, nullifying the Fair Housing Act’s Discriminatory Effects standard, under which the impact of a policy is just as relevant as the motivation. Without that standard, also called “disparate impact,” a well-established legal avenue to prosecute housing discrimination would be invalidated.

Biden deserves credit for this important early action, putting the force of the federal government behind opposing housing discrimination rather than advancing it. The federal government’s commitment to fair housing, however, should be clarified by Congress and not left to the policies of any particular president.

There have also been two significant state actions. First, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced a targeted package of reforms aimed at increasing homeownership rates in communities that have been adversely impacted by redlining, the government-sanctioned housing discrimination that long prevented home loans in communities of color. The package will enable low- and moderate-income borrowers — particularly households of color — to own homes and put historically underserved communities on track to close the racial wealth gap.

Cuomo’s proposed reforms will help revitalize segregated communities, but explicit incentives are still needed to help Blacks own homes in communities of their choice, including white communities. Such incentives could include subsidies for access to those communities.

 Second, three State Senate committees jointly released a 97-page investigative report on housing discrimination on Long Island. Sen. Kevin Thomas, a Democrat from Levittown, is chair of one of those committees, the Consumer Protection Committee.

The report, which responds to testimony that I and others presented at committees hearings, calls for key reforms, including the creation of a New York State Fair Housing Strategy; more proactive enforcement of fair housing laws, including via testing; enhanced training for real estate licensing and renewal, as well as other brokerage industry changes; increased penalties for violators of fair housing laws; and policies to ensure that government at all levels is part of the solution by taking concrete steps to address discrimination and segregation. The State Senate has recently advanced fair housing legislation that would carry out the report’s recommendations.

These are major steps forward, and the officials involved deserve credit for advancing them. Other initiatives are brewing as well. For instance, a broad coalition of housing advocates, including ERASE Racism, is backing a bill just introduced in the State Legislature to legalize accessory-dwelling units. These are smaller homes on the same lot as a primary residence, including the familiar basement apartments and garage conversions. With the explicit Fair Housing provisions in this legislation, affordable and flexible housing options in all Long Island communities would provide more options for people of color, especially Black families that have been systematically discriminated against. This legislation would help alleviate these inequities and would help existing homeowners struggling to make ends meet.

While all of these initiatives are at the federal and state levels, the State Senate report rightly calls on government at all levels, including local government, to be part of the solution. That point should be emphasized on Long Island, which has a stunning number of local governments within its two counties — a total of more than 100 villages, towns and cities.

It’s not coincidental that with so many local governments, Long Island is ranked among the nation’s 10 most racially segregated metropolitan regions. That segregation is, in large part, the byproduct of home rule: the power of hundreds of town and village governments to control what may be built in a neighborhood and who is permitted to live there.

Momentum is building at the federal and state levels, offering new promise of eliminating housing discrimination. Much more is needed, even as these reform packages move forward. The next step is for local jurisdictions on Long Island to become, in the words of the State Senate report, “part of the solution.”

Elaine Gross is president of ERASE Racism, the regional civil rights organization based on Long Island.