Magazine article The American Prospect

Integrate Expectations

Magazine article The American Prospect

Integrate Expectations

Article excerpt

In the popular imagination, Westchester County, just north of New York City, is a land of endless picket fences and backyard swimming pools. My hometown of Ossining, New York, is where John Cheever, chronicler of white suburban malaise, lived and set some of his stories. On cable TV's Mad Men, Ossining is depicted as a bedroom community where wives ride horses, husbands drown their sexual frustrations in afterwork cocktails, and children attend lily-white schools.

Westchester is a real place, though, and like most American places, its demographics have become far more complex over the last half-century. In search of the American dream of safe streets and decent schools, increasing numbers of African American families have migrated from inner-city New York to Westchester. In the 1980s and 1990s, Hispanic immigrants joined them, and some towns became magnets for day laborers.

Through all these changes, Westchester has retained its picket fences and country clubs--it's just become more and more racially and socio-economically segregated. Uber-affluent villages such as Briarcliff Manor, Searsdale, and Chappaqua put zoning laws on the books preventing the construction of affordable, high-density rental housing. The county never intervened. Meanwhile, affordable housing was erected in towns that already had significant black and Hispanic populations and less-elite schools, such as Yonkers, Mount Vernon, and Ossining--which was always more of a working-class town than the tony enclave imagined in Mad Men.

Since President Lyndon Johnson signed the Fair Housing Act of 1968 into law, this type of deliberately segregationist urban planning has been illegal. But the law has gone unenforced. In February federal Judge Denise Cote ruled that Westchester had "utterly failed" to meet the government's fair-housing regulations and that the Department of Housing and Urban Development had turned a blind eye to a series of "false or fraudulent" documents from the county claiming it was furthering fair-housing goals.

Instead of defending the agency's prerogative to sweep segregation under the rug, as the Bush and Clinton administrations did, President Barack Obama's HUD swooped in to negotiate a settlement between Westchester and the Anti-Discrimination Center, the nonprofit that filed the ease. That settlement is historic: It requires Westchester to construct 630 affordable homes or apartments in communities that are currently less than 3 percent black and less than 7 percent Hispanic. …

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