Anyone concerned about Washington’s power to affect one’s choice of where to live should breathe a sigh of relief now that the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has finally, under Trump administration direction, declared New York’s Westchester County compliant with housing-discrimination regulation. Under a federal consent decree, Westchester—the archetypal New York City suburb—helped finance 750 units of subsidized housing, scattered throughout well-off municipalities. Westchester’s sin was not that it countenanced discriminatory housing policies—such as restrictive covenants against selling real estate to black people, for instance—but for having, in HUD’s view, failed to file an adequate assessment of whether local land-use regulations might potentially have discriminatory consequences.
In HUD’s vision, and that of the Anti-Discrimination Center of Metro New York, which filed the original suit, the concentration of poor, minority residents within a jurisdiction is de facto evidence of ongoing racial discrimination. Non-discriminatory housing policies, the argument goes, should promote dispersion of racial and economic minorities throughout a given area. But this view ignores virtually everything about how housing patterns and preferences actually work in the United States.
In that real-world America, neighborhoods and municipalities are arrayed on what I’ve called a housing ladder, with rungs determined by socioeconomic status. Across America, where you live is determined by what you can afford to pay. As I’ve written previously, that’s exactly how things work in Westchester, too, where even affluent enclaves such as Scarsdale have black populations in proportion to the number of blacks with incomes high enough to buy homes there. Americans recognize that working and saving to move up the ladder reflects a system that rewards effort—and leads to neighborhoods where residents feel common bonds.
The Westchester case is important to communities around the country because of HUD’s enormous leverage: the department administers community-development block grants (CDBGs) that provide funding for thousands of local jurisdictions. HUD, with the approval of the federal courts, views acceptance of such funds as contingent upon taking proactive steps to engineer housing patterns that fit a vision for America—called “affirmatively furthering fair housing”—developed by the Obama administration.
That vision overlooks the extent to which racial and ethnic clustering can reflect preferences, not discrimination. The New York Times, no less, has published two articles reflecting that perspective. An essay by an African-American New York woman discussed her consideration of a move to Atlanta, which she saw as a place where affluent blacks don’t feel out of place. Similarly, an article about the historically black section of Sag Harbor, an affluent Long Island town, reported on residents’ desire to maintain that historic character, where they have summered. As the Times noted, “Colson Whitehead, writing about the summers of the black elite in his novel Sag Harbor, described an oasis apart from his white prep school. ‘We fit in there,’ he wrote.” Anyone who knows Westchester County also knows well that many neighborhoods there have their own religious and ethnic character—Jewish, Catholic, Italian, and Irish.
In what might at first appear to be an unrelated initiative, HUD, in addition to calling its dogs off Westchester, has also proposed, in its 2018 budget, to eliminate the CDBG program. Democrats have howled that doing so would eliminate programs like Meals on Wheels, but these initiatives draw only minimal funding from CDBG and could easily be supplemented through private charity. As the Westchester case shows, the block grants enable Washington to intervene in policies that should remain within the purview of localities and their zoning and development boards. If CDBG is not zeroed out, local leaders should refuse the funding outright.
That said, it’s valuable for communities to include a range of neighborhood and housing types—and income groups, too. In nineteenth-century America, even rich towns had less well-off districts. Today, wealthy enclaves would be well-advised to adopt zoning that allows for smaller homes in denser neighborhoods: doing so would allow children to grow up and live in the community where they came of age, and teachers and police to reside in the communities they serve. But this is a long way from subsidizing the poorest Americans to live nearby the richest—a form of social-engineering that can only deform markets and create friction. Let localities devise the best approach to housing affordability on their own, instead of forcing them to heel before HUD’s bureaucrats.
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