The Surreal Estate

Perspectives on Tenant Organizing from the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board

Tag Archives: fair housing

The Systems That Govern: the NBA, Racism, and Affordable Housing

By now most of us have heard of — and been disgusted by — the (most recent) statements that allegedly come from  current Los Angeles Clippers owner, Donald Sterling to his girlfriend. If you haven’t, here are a few choice parts:

It bothers me a lot that you want to broadcast that you’re associating with black people. Do you have to?…You can sleep with [black people]. You can bring them in, you can do whatever you want.  The little I ask you is not to promote it on  … and not to bring them to my games.

There has been a lot of anger being directed at Sterling over the past few days. Players from many different teams have had pretty strong reactions: “I couldn’t play for him”; “There’s no room for Sterling in this league”; and comparing the comments to “plantation politics”.

What is almost as shocking as what he said is that this is not the first time that Sterling has come under fire for his overt racism. Deadspin has a full list of the most famous comments he’s on the record as saying. In 2009, Elgin Baylor, the Clippers General Manager from 1986 to 2008, filed an age and racial discrimination suit against his old boss alleging, among other things, that Sterling repeatedly expressed a desire to field a team of “poor black boys from the South … playing for a white coach.”

Beyond his abhorrent racism, Sterling is also a vicious slumlord. In 2009 he was forced to pay $2.73 million in a settlement accusing him of discriminating against Black and Latino tenants. Sterling said he did not like to rent to “Hispanics” because “Hispanics smoke, drink and just hang around the building.” He also stated that “black tenants smell and attract vermin.” The case ended with the largest ever settlement obtained by the US Department of Justice in a housing discrimination case involving rental units.

A vastly disproportionate amount of the low-income tenants we work with are people of color. The systematic link between poverty and race is well documented — though of course it does not mean that all poor people are people of color and that all people of color are poor. The folks who live in affordable housing are, shockingly, folks who are working low-paying jobs or not able to work for any number of reasons.

Low-income tenants are too often vulnerable at the hands of their landlords. NYC’s rent laws are difficult to understand, and landlords are literally paid to exploit the loopholes that exist. And when tenants try and push back, there is always the worry that landlords will take tenants to court over and over again for frivolous charges, forcing tenants to take off work or adding stress that could literally kill them. For example, Sterling was also forced to pay $5 million in legal fees (plus an unknown, large settlement sum) to over a dozen tenants represented by the Housing Rights Center. According to The Nation blogger Dave Zirin:

Not all the plaintiffs, though, lived to see their windfall. Court documents state that on July 12, 2002, “Kandynce Jones was under threat of eviction by [Sterling] even though she had never missed a rent payment. Ms. Jones, who is a senior citizen and a person with a disability, suffered a stroke caused by the stress [of Sterling’s] housing practices. On July 21, 2003, Ms. Jones passed away as a result of that stroke.”

This exploitation is not isolated. It is a direct result of the systems that govern.

On WNYC’s Brian Leher Show this morning, the Washington Post’s Clinton Yates talked about the incredible structures of power at play here.

If you think about what that [Housing Rights Center settlement] is on its own, and the fact that the NBA knew this, understood this, and allowed him to continue unfettered in his ownership of an NBA team points to you — I mean it points you to how the major structures of power really, really work.

This last point — “how the major structures of power really, really work” — is worth repeating and emphasizing. The same type of people that govern the systems of the NBA — wealthy, middle-aged, heterosexual, white men — govern the systems of government that in turn dictate the laws and regulations of housing in New York City and beyond. Yates goes on:

[Sterling] indicates that there is a certain fear of his own feelings, which is that he’s afraid to not be racist because he doesn’t live in a world in which that doesn’t automatically benefit him. And that in itself is a frightening concept if you really think about, again, how the power structures of this country work, where a guy like that is emboldened — and it makes sense to him to operate in discriminatory manors because it makes him more money.

When privileged individuals are encouraged to exploit others in order to become wealthier and more privileged, we know the systems that govern have failed. When it is good for business — and legal — to harass tenants into leaving their homes so you can raise the rent, we know the systems that govern have failed us. When landlords are allowed to take out mortgages they can’t possibly pay back to buy buildings they have no intention of maintaining, we know the systems that govern have failed.

Sterling’s comments and the full backstory behind them should remind us that we need to continue to push our elected officials and organize en mass for a system that works for all people, no matter their race or income.

Intent vs. Impact in the Fair Housing Act

Yesterday, we stumbled across this list of the “Six Supreme Court Cases to Watch this Term.” On it are the usual suspects: abortion rights (twice!), affirmative action, campaign finance reform, separation of church and state…and…

The right to Fair Housing! The case, Township of Mount Holly v. Mount Holly Gardens Citizens in Action, is bringing the Fair Housing Act – passed in 1968, in the wake of MLK’s assassination – to the forefront once again. At issue is whether the Fair Housing Act requires people of color to prove intentional racial discrimination in sales, rentals, zoning or lending practices, or whether a policy’s “disparate impact” is enough to make it illegal.

You may never have heard of Mount Holly, NJ. It’s a small town of about 10,000 people that is just across the river from Philadelphia. Its mostly White (65%) with a sizable minority of Blacks and Latinos (34%)  according to US Census Data from 2010.

From the USA Today:

“At the center of the case is a 30-acre neighborhood outside Philadelphia of two-story, attached row houses called The Gardens that is blighted and overrun by crime. In 2000, about 1,600 people lived in the neighborhood, about two-thirds of whom were black or Hispanic. Most household incomes were far below the town’s $43,000 median.

Since 2002, Mount Holly officials have sought to demolish the homes and replace them with 520 mostly market-priced apartments and townhomes; 56 would be reserved for Gardens residents.”

The case claims that the city is openly displacing nearly two thousand people. 260 families have folded under the pressure – not to mention city-sponsored financial incentive – and left their homes. But 70 courageous families rightfully remain in their homes.

A group called Mount Holly Gardens Citizens in Action have sued the city, arguing that the redevelopment and subsequent relocation is illegal according to the Fair Housing Act. The city argues that just because it disproportionately affects people of color, it does not mean that that displacement is racial discrimination.

Ah, yes the age old question of intent vs. impact.

For the past forty years, the answer always fell on the “impact” side of things. Lower courts and the Department of Housing and Urban Development have interpreted the Fair Housing Act that way over and over again in the past. But things are looking different since the Supreme Court struck down the key provision the Voting Rights Act of 1965 earlier this year. If the Mount Holly case goes the wrong way, it could open the door to loads of problems in New York City.

Not surprisingly, USA Today lists “developers, bankers, insurers” as supporters of the displacement. As interests groups that favor profit over people, we have seen them systematically displace people of color in all boroughs by exploiting loopholes to raise rents and evict tenants.

All we can do now is wait for the oral arguments – happening within six months – and hope that the Supreme Court sticks with the precedent of the past fifty years.

The Fight Between HUD and Westchester County Continues!


Westchester County and HUD continue their 3 year fight over the terms of a 2009 Fair Housing settlement.  As we wrote last year, the settlement mandates that Westchester County build 750 new units of affordable housing, analyze exclusionary zoning as well as other obstacles to fair housing, and work on how to rid themselves of those obstacles. In addition, the county was required to promote a law that would make it illegal for landlords to discriminate against tenants who use government vouchers (this law exists in NYC).

I wish I could offer some good news, like Westchester has turned around, decided to go above and beyond HUD’s requirements, and that Westchester is now a booming, economically and racially diverse place to live.  But, alas, the fight continues.

HUD had previously promised the county $7.4 million in grants for housing, parks, playgrounds, and other government services. But, as a result of the lawsuit and failure to comply, this money is frozen and may be lost altogether if Westchester continues to sidestep HUD’s criteria. On Monday, the government of Westchester County indicated that they plan to ask the State to administer the money, rather than the county.

Who is behind all this controversy?  His name is Rob Astorino and he is the County Executive (pictured above). Mr. Astorino believes he is in full compliance with the settlement, and is requesting a hearing with HUD before the county officially loses control of the money.

While we understand that politics can certainly play into this lawsuit, we believe that throwing such a fight against Fair Housing as well as racial and economic integration can only be a bad thing.

How Mr. Astorino and Westchester County have not complied with the settlement (according to HUD):

  • The law the government was supposed to promote – landlords can’t discriminate against tenants with subsidies- passed! But then Mr. Astorino vetoed it! How could he simultaneously promote the law while vetoing it? He can’t. The county, according to HUD, still needs to deal with housing discrimination before it can access the money.
  • The county has still not submitted an adequate report that explains obstacles to Fair Housing in the county, particularly a racial analysis.
  • The already developed 300 new units of affordable housing are tucked “into the county’s nooks and crannies” (according to an opinion piece in the NYTimes). This placement of new affordable housing is, of course, problematic, particularly when trying to dispute that the planning is not exclusionary zoning. 

To be fair, one unfortunate circumstance of the monetary freeze is that towns who have no involvement in the court order and (supposedly) have made long-term efforts to promote affordable housing are negatively impacted. These towns, like Mamaroneck, “are faced with losing money for a wrong that for many years we have been proactively seeking to address.”

Stay tuned for more deets on this highly contentious debate!

Lending Practices Perpetuate Gender Discrimination

According to investigations by HUD and the NY Times, accessing a mortgage is more arudous if you are a pregnant mother. The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) reports regular complaints that banks and brokers deny women loans based on pregnancy or maternity leave.  Some lenders (including PNC Bank) single pregnant women out for different treatment and offer them different, less desirable mortgage products (when they do not deny them outright.) The Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination against a renter or a homeowner based on sex or familial status, and this gender-based discrimination in lending practices is illegal. Ciswomen, transwomen, and allies, spread the word — gender discrimination is influencing lending practices!

Many lenders refute allegations about gender discrimination by pointing to new, more conservative practices in general following the mortgage crisis. However, this claim is based on outdated and incorrect assumptions about women’s real experiences, including job loss or unwillingness to return to paid employment. The Pregnancy Discrimination Act guarantees women job security while on maternity leave — it is illegal for an employer to replace an employee due to pregnancy. And now, more than ever, women are returning to work after pregnancy. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, over 50 percent of women return to work after childbirth.

As the current housing crisis has shown us, Discriminatory practices in mortgage lending has horrific ramifications. Today, the foreclosure crisis is felt most acutely by Black and Hispanic home-buyers, who were deemed “too risky” for traditional mortgage instruments. Minority and low-income homeowners were manipulated by lenders into costly, sub-prime mortgages, many of which came with unaffordable, balloon payments and quickly fell into foreclosure. (Read this op-ed on the 80/20 mortgage problem for more information.) If lenders (illegally) refuse pregnant women traditional mortgages, they re-open the door to non-bank and high-cost mortgages that very obviously hurt families.

MomsRising, a group of women and allies organize around the most critical issues faced by women, are taking a stand. The organizers at UHAB stand in solidarity with MomsRising and all those that are unfairly denied mortgages. But correcting practices within banks is not enough. The United States is one of eight countries without paid maternity leave. Of these eight, the United States is the only country with a stable economy and supported infrastructure. If we had paid maternity leave, discriminatory practices in the mortgage market may become inexistant. In addition to holding banks accountable, we need to hold our elected officials accountable for stronger policies that protect working, pregnant women.

If you are experiencing gender discrimination when seeking a mortgage, call HUD at 800-669-9777.

US Government Continues to Push Westchester County for Fair Housing

It’s been years since The US government started its battle Westchester County, NY over a Fair Housing lawsuit. After being sued in a housing segregation lawsuit in 2009, Westchester County was mandated to construct 750 units of affordable housing to desegregate the suburban communities, economically and racially.  Westchester is known for its stereotypical White and wealthy suburbs, and this lawsuit is an attempt by national government to implement more inclusive housing policies throughout the country.

While Westchester has been on schedule in terms of constructing new units of affordable housing, HUD is asking officials to comply “more fully.” According to an article published this week in the Wall Street Journal, HUD is asking Westchester to promote a bill which would prohibit landlords from rejecting tenants with Section 8, as well as analyze potentially racially discriminatory zoning laws.

In defense, Westchester officials are claiming that their zoning policies reflect the desires of their constituents.    County Executive Rob Astorino told reporters:

“The last thing we want,” he added, “is five years from now, for people to say, ‘What happened? Why is this neighborhood completely inside-out now? Why do I have a six-story government housing project or building or townhomes in my neighborhood when it wasn’t zoned for that when I moved in here?

NIMBY anyone? We think that HUD Assistant Secretary John Trasvina says it clearly (in the same article):

“The source of income of an individual is often used to deny them housing,” Trasvina said. “Quite frankly, it’s often used as a proxy for race or national origin.”

When racial and economic injustices are so intertwined, it is almost impossible to separate one from the other when thinking about national policies and implications on communities.  As we discussed in our previous blog post about the connection between urban zoning, affordable housing, and access to quality schools, when people are zoned into separate sections of a city based on income levels, access to basic services  and even basic rights (including quality education) is unequal.  When you bring race into the equation, it’s despicable.

If ethics or law won’t change Westchester’s behavior, perhaps money will.  HUD is holding $12 million for local projects until the county complies, and is even threatening to fine the county for acting in contempt.  It’s serious.

In light of our country’s awful history with racist zoning policies, HUD’s strong stance that Westchester needs to take the lawsuit seriously and change its discriminatory ways is pretty hopeful.  Could it be a sign that national policies are shifting to create a more just housing system?  We’ll believe it when we see it.

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