Thursday, September 2, 2010

On Individual & Group Rights

Fair Housing efforts reflected the spirit and goals of early civil rights efforts. It's focus was on expanding individual rights, equal opportunity, specifically the rights of individuals to have an equal opportunity toreside in the neighborhoods of their choice. Fair Housing proponents sought to overturn laws and covenants that restricted an individual's right to reside in the community of their choice. Such laws were also odious because they violated fundamental property rights by restricting the rights of an individual to sell or rent their property to the individual of their choosing. For these reasons, I consider the early fair housing crusaders as embodying the best of the American Way. As time went on the scope of these laws expanded to bar individual sellers, landlords and Realtors from discriminatory actions. This was more contentious because although it expanded opportunities for some, it did infringe on the property rights of others. But, most Americans view it as a net expansion of traditional American rights.

Over time, segments of the civil rights movement have shifted their focus towards group rights and equal outcomes. The vision that groups had the right to equal representation in neighborhoods or professions, represented a radical departure from the American Way. Unequal social and economic outcomes were viewed as a priori proofs of discrimination. This is seen in cases were the federal government intervened in local communities not to protect individuals from discrimination, but to ensure that selected racial and ethnic groups are "sufficiently represented." Such remedies often involve efforts to engineering demographic change. This is seen when the federal government mandated that Westchester County, NY spend $50 million in tax payer funds to build "affordable housing" in areas were Latinos and African-Americans were "underrepresented," even though no evidence of individual or systematic discrimination was present. Rather, the dominant factor was the economic self segregation that occurs more along economic and social lines. Favorable or unfavorable as this may be, it does not constitute the violation of individual civil rights. The collaboration of county with federal authorities prompted a backlash in which this historically liberal county threw out its its incumbent democratic county executive in favor of a Republican candidate, Rob Astorino.

On a broader level this represents a clash between those who view individuals and groups as passive agents and those who believe that individuals and groups determine the nature of their communities through the efforts that they undertake and the decisions that they make. The former envision positive social environments and community life as goods that are unfairly monopolized by some and should be redistributed to others. This implies that the means to address the social pathology and crime that are endemic in poor African-American and to a lesser extent Hispanic communities, is to have the government mandate their transfer to middle class and (predominantly) white communities. Although this improves the lives of some individuals, the overall rate of poverty, pathology and school performance of poor minorities placed by the state in stable communities does not significantly improve. Many critics of this approach point out that the state should focus its efforts and resources in improving the dismal schools and employment opportunities in low income communities. In addition, when a critical demographic mass is reached, the social pathology of the original communities are recreated and the flight of the original population ensues. This is seen when the gangs of Humboldt Park took root in large swaths of the previously safe and quiet Belmont-Cragin neighborhood.

But, on a positive note, the sociologist Herbert Gans documented that residential integration "can be achieved without problem when the two races are similar in socio-economic levels and in the visible cultural aspects of class." In other words when diverse middle and upper class families who share similar norms and values freely choose to live together, integration will proceed smoothly and community life will remain vibrant. Backwards bigots who fear change will always exist, but the reservations of most individuals will melt away when they are faced with the daily reality that their diverse neighbors share their commitment to maintaining a clean, quiet, safe and positive community for their families. Such positive integration can be strengthened by having the state protect the rights of individuals to live in the communities of their choosing. But, when the state engages in heavy handed social engineering and forces individuals with incompatible norms and behaviors to live together, it is a recipe for tension. These sentiments are even shared by some African-American residents of Westchester:

"As an African American, I am tired of the practice of placing government housing in otherwise middle class and affluent neighborhoods. . . . All it does is reinforce a stereotype that all African American are laggards when it comes to educating ourselves, rising socially and advancing economically."

Integration through the free movement of diverse individuals, through their own efforts and achievements should be strongly encouraged. To achieve this, equal opportunity for all individuals must be carefully guarded, but no where in the constitution are groups granted the right to equal outcomes. And no where in the constitution is the federal government granted the power to force social and demographic change on local communities.

Westchester Adds Housing to Desegregation Pact


Published: August 10, 2009

Westchester County entered into a landmark desegregation agreement on Monday that would compel it to create hundreds of houses and apartments for moderate-income people in overwhelmingly white communities and aggressively market them to nonwhites in Westchester and New York City.

The agreement, if ratified by the county’s Board of Legislators, would settle a lawsuit filed by an antidiscrimination group and could become a template for increased scrutiny of local governments’ housing policies by the Obama administration.

“This is consistent with the president’s desire to see a fully integrated society,” said Ron Sims, the deputy secretary of housing and urban development, which helped broker the settlement along with the Justice Department. “Until now, we tended to lay dormant. This is historic, because we are going to hold people’s feet to the fire.”

The agreement calls for the county to spend more than $50 million of its own money, in addition to other funds, to build or acquire 750 homes or apartments, 630 of which must be provided in towns and villages where black residents constitute 3 percent or less of the population and Hispanic residents make up less than 7 percent. The 120 other spaces must meet different criteria for cost and ethnic concentration.

The county, one of the nation’s wealthiest suburbs, has seven years to complete the construction or acquisition of the affordable housing.

Affordable housing is defined by a complex formula, but generally it is meant to help working families keep from spending more than a third of their gross income on housing. A family of four could make up to $53,000 as a tenant and up to $75,000 as an owner and still qualify.

There is no minimum income level, “but it’s not going to be no-income,” said Craig Gurian, executive director of the Anti-Discrimination Center, which filed the lawsuit. “This agreement is not focused on facilitating housing for the poorest of the poor.” The center is a nonprofit anti-bias advocacy and litigation group based in New York City.

Mr. Gurian said that while black and Hispanic residents have a disproportionate need for affordable housing, “this is an opportunity-creating agreement, not a guarantee” that the homes would go to minority members.

“Residential segregation underlies virtually every racial disparity in America, from education to jobs to the delivery of health care,” said Mr. Gurian.

No communities have been chosen to receive the homes, officials said. But according to the Anti-Discrimination Center, more than two dozen predominantly white towns or villages are eligible, including Bedford, Bronxville, Eastchester, Hastings-on-Hudson, Harrison, Larchmont, Mamaroneck, New Castle, Pelham Manor, Rye and Scarsdale.

A federal monitor, James E. Johnson, has been appointed to ensure that the county abides by the settlement. Given that 120,000 acres in the county meet the criteria, the monitor “should have no difficulty making sure that Westchester ends its policy of allowing affordable housing to be off-limits in the most highly white neighborhoods in the county,” Mr. Gurian said.

The lawsuit, filed under the federal False Claims Act, argued that when Westchester applied for federal Community Development Block Grants for affordable housing and other projects, county officials treated part of the application as boilerplate — lying when they claimed to have complied with mandates to encourage fair housing.

A Westchester official originally dismissed the suit as “garbage.” But the county was largely repudiated in February when Judge Denise L. Cote ruled in Federal District Court that between 2000 and 2006 it had misrepresented its efforts to desegregate overwhelmingly white communities when it applied for the federal housing funds.

Judge Cote concluded that Westchester had made little or no effort to find out where low-income housing was being placed, or to finance homes and apartments in communities that opposed affordable housing.

As part of Monday’s agreement, the county admitted that it has the authority to challenge zoning rules in villages and towns that in many cases implicitly discourage affordable housing by setting minimum lot sizes, discouraging higher-density developments or appropriating vacant property for other purposes. Westchester agreed to “take legal action to compel compliance if municipalities hinder or impede the county” in complying with the agreement.

It was unclear Monday to what extent localities could thwart the agreement, if any chose to do so. Mary Beth Murphy, the town supervisor of Somers, which is among the possible locales for new housing, said that while she was unaware of the agreement, “we certainly are committed to affordable housing and have amended our zoning legislation in recent years to create more opportunities.”

The agreement could spark challenges to suburban county governments across the country that have resisted pressure to undo decades of residential segregation.

Andrew J. Spano, the Westchester County executive, attributed the settlement to “a historic shift of philosophy” by federal housing officials. He said he had signed the agreement to avoid further litigation and possible penalties.

The county admitted no wrongdoing, attributed the judge’s ruling to a technicality and argued that since it had previously invested in affordable housing, “what is different is the locations where the housing must be built.”

“We are settling the lawsuit because we have no choice,” Mr. Spano said.

The suit by the Anti-Discrimination Center applied to towns and villages in Westchester. The federal government deals directly with the county’s larger cities, among them Yonkers, which nearly went bankrupt before capitulating in a housing segregation case that began in 1980 and dragged on for years. That city, which had concentrated public housing in its southwest, was forced to build on the east side, where more whites lived.

The agreement is subject to approval within 45 days by the county’s Board of Legislators, which is also required to approve a $32.9 million bond sale to help finance the housing. Without legislative approval, the litigation would resume and the county would be faced with having to prove at trial that it did not knowingly file false claims.

Most of the homes would be new construction, although some existing houses and apartments could qualify if the county made them permanently affordable.

The case was litigated by Mr. Gurian and the center’s lawyer, John Relman, and supported by testimony from Andrew A. Beveridge, a sociologist at Queens College of the City University of New York.

Dr. Beveridge found that “racial isolation is increasing for blacks, falling slightly for whites” and that “income level has very little impact on the degree of residential racial segregation experienced by African-Americans.”

Mr. Gurian said that the 750 homes called for by the agreement “represents only a small percentage of need,” but that “it’s designed to be practical.”

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