The HBO miniseries “Show Me a Hero” recounts the efforts to desegregate Yonkers in the 1980s. The final episodes of writer David Simon’s compelling drama aired this weekend, but the series underscores a clear lesson for Long Island: We need strong leadership to overcome the legacies of segregation and build affordable housing for our increasingly diverse region.
The series illustrates the toxicity of suburban NIMBY-ism, is through which mostly white, affluent communities resist new housing that would be affordable to working-class (mostly) people of color. Often argued in racial codes — “their culture is not like ours” — members and leaders of communities across the country have for decades mobilized to block new developments — even when it meant flouting the law.
Long Island was mostly developed in the post-War era, often with racial and ethnic covenants — no Blacks or Jews allowed — that kept communities largely homogeneous. But the civil rights movement led to major legislative victories, including the Fair Housing Act. Part of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, it outlawed housing discrimination and created legal leverage for anti-housing discrimination efforts.
But compliance throughout many communities, including on Long Island, has been slow. When mostly white, affluent residents have stood up to say “not in my backyard,” politicians have often let the status quo continue without repercussions. The days of racial covenants are behind us, but exclusion has entrenched itself through policies like local preferences (where developments set aside units for people from a particular area) or proposals for developments of only one-bedroom units (targeting affluent students or young professionals, rather than not-as-affluent families of color).
The result is that Long Island retains an enormous rental housing deficit, while simultaneously remaining one of the country’s most segregated regions. Sadly, the problem extends to our schools, which are among the country’s most segregated, according to the Long Island Index. How else could anyone explain why some of the state’s best (mostly white) public schools are located a 10-minute drive from some of the worst (mostly nonwhite) public schools?
Well into the 2000s, public hearings on Long Island housing developments were the site of the same types of race-laden NIMBY-ism that Simon so aptly captures in Yonkers. Even former County Executive Thomas Suozzi has acknowledged that opposition to affordable housing was sometimes “based upon racism.”
As in “Show Me a Hero,” the courts or federal government have been the only recourse for many communities of color on Long Island.
Garden City lost a long court battle with New York Communities for Change when it tried to defend its discriminatory housing policies that would have prevented the development of multifamily rental buildings.
Huntington finally settled with the NAACP after a 12-year legal challenge to a no-rental development.
Oyster Bay has been accused by the federal government of discriminating against African Americans in its housing policy.
The examples abound, but the courts can only do so much. While anti-discrimination rulings are vital, as they were in Yonkers, fighting every discriminatory policy in court will take too long. To really effect change, communities also need local leaders to prioritize the development of affordable housing along nondiscriminatory lines.
There are signs of progress, however. For instance, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone and the legislature last year approved an expansion of the Human Rights Law that protected against housing discrimination based on income, and a few new developments are on track that include multifamily units.
But that’s not nearly enough. All new developments should be held to a higher standard of affordability — including that more rental units be affordable to working-class families earning $30,000 a year or less, many of whom are forced to live in overcrowded conditions.
We need forward-looking and resilient leaders — particularly when loud-voiced, well-heeled local residents cry wolf about the risks to “our way of life.” Instead of kowtowing to that chorus, local officials, specially in towns and villages where the fights are so often waged, need to stand up and be heroes.
Daniel Altschuler and Walter Barrientos are, respectively, the civic engagement and research coordinator and the Long Island coordinator of Make the Road New York.
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