By Sarah Trefethen
Just over 10 years ago, in January of 2002, Nassau County was short on the cash needed to maintain its various properties, from courthouses to administrative office. Then-County Executive Thomas R. Suozzi set out to consolidate the county’s holdings, devising a plan that included the sale of a 25-acre parcel in Garden City, a village of just over 21,000 residents in central Long Island.
That decision set of a chain of events that is still playing out in court, where Garden City officials face allegations that racial discrimination caused them to disallow the development of multi-family rental buildings on the site. The case is expected to go to trial in district court this summer.
The case highlights some of the challenge that have faced both developers who want to target young, elderly and blue-collar residents in suburban New York, and policymakers who seek to bring racial and economic diversity to some of the area’s whitest, most affluent communities.
“Everyone’s for affordable housing until you select a location,” said James Britz, senior vice president of the Long Island Housing Partnership.
Britz, who is not involved in the Garden City case, reports that more affordable housing is available in Long Island than in 2005, thanks largely to the general drop in the housing market.
Also, in January 2009, an inclusionary zoning law came into effect that requires developments over 5 units include 10 percent affordable housing.
The housing partnership has completed a project in ritzy Sagaponack, where two single-family homes with attached rental units were sold to low-income lottery winners in 2009, and a 40-unit condominium in the Hamlet of Bay Shore is scheduled to open soon.
Nonetheless, Long Island remains a hard place for the less affluent to find a place to live. Housing is at most 20 percent rental, Britz said, where ideally it would be more like 40 percent.
“What we need is more of a mix of housing,” he said. “When you have such a low rental market and such a high cost, people are being shut out, and we’re losing our young and our elderly off the island.”
In the Garden City case, the county approached the village government and asked that the property, zoned for government use, be re-designated in a way that would maximize the county’s profit. The village hired a planning consultant, who recommended zoning for multi-family development.
But after the proposal was taken to public hearing the village settled on a more restrictive zoning – the
decision that became the basis of the suit filed by an alliance of non-profit groups and individuals against the village and county.
In a 101-page ruling issued in February, district court Judge Arthur D. Spatt dismissed the charges against the county but ruled that the case against the village could go ahead, based largely on the evidence of statements made during public hearings and in advertisements placed in local newspapers at the time of the hearings.
“Although the Garden City Defendants have offered a nondiscriminatory reason for their actions, a fact finder could reasonably conclude that the proffered reason is pretextual and that discrimination was the real reason behind their zoning decision,” the judge wrote.
Among the evidence is a statement from Suozzi, the former county executive, who testified: “I think there are some people who are opposed to affordable housing in Garden City based upon racism.”
Discriminatory attitudes are not an uncommon response to affordable housing initiatives in Long Island, Brisk said, until people are better educated on the issue.
“It makes sense, if you look at reasons people moved out of New York City years ago – they wanted their picket fences,” he said. “But it doesn’t work economically. You need different types of housing structure, you need places where people can choose where they want to live.”
And, he said, once a community’s fears are overcome things seem to work out okay.
“I’ve never had anyone come back to me – it’s an interesting fact – and say I wish you never built this development or I wish you’d never done this program. It’s fear of the unknown,” Brisk said.
In the Garden City case, the plaintiffs are represented by the New York City firm Hogan & Hartson, Hempstead-based Frederick K. Brewington, and the Washington, D.C. – based Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights.
The kind of segregation the Fair Housing Act was designed to fight was often caused by government action, making zoning cases like this one particularly significant, according to a lawyer familiar with fair housing issues.
“Your typical fair housing case is a case where a landlord will rent to whites but not to blacks,” he said. “This kind of case, which is designed to help desegregate entire communities, is at the core the most important kind of case under the fair housing act.”
Nassua County no longer plans to sell the Garden City property at the center of the lawsuit.
However, according to Spatt’s ruling, that doesn’t mean the plantiffs’ request that the court enjoin the village from future discriminatory acts cannot be filled.
“Moreover, this court can fashion appropriate relief not specifically requested, such as the building of integrated, affordable housing elsewhere in Garden City, if this court deems it reasonable, necessary and just,” Spatt wrote.