Westchester County, the mostly wealthy suburbs just north of New York City, is at the epicenter of one of the nation’s leading court battles over housing segregation.

Last week, the New York Times reported that seven years since the Justice Department accused many of the county’s municipalities of using exclusionary zoning laws and other policies to encourage segregation, the progress made is less than many advocates had hoped for.

A commercial district in Scarsdale, Westchester County, NY. Credit: June Marie, Flickr
A commercial district in Scarsdale, Westchester County, NY. Credit: June Marie, Flickr


Racial segregation in Westchester County, as in the New York metropolitan area in general, remains extreme. In a report submitted to the court system, CUNY professor Andrew Beveridge wrote that the “dissimilarity index” between whites and blacks, which represents the percentage of people who would have to move to have perfect integration, is 73. While the county as a whole has a fairly diverse population, less than five percent of Census tracts in the county have both black and white populations that are representative of the overall population of the county.

Moreover, the towns in Westchester County with extremely low black populations are also towns with extremely restrictive zoning laws. Of the 25 municipalities whose black populations are under three percent (versus 16 percent countywide), 21 ban apartments on at least 95 percent of their residential land—and 11 mandate single-family homes on at least 99 percent of their residential land.

And even when they allow multi-family buildings, these towns use zoning as a tool of segregation. Of these 25 towns, professor Beveridge found that 23 had black populations heavily concentrated in small areas where apartments were allowed, separate from the more common, white-dominated, single-family home zones.

Of course, zoning on its own can’t solve the problem. But as Beveridge argues, it’s hard to see how Westchester County could meaningfully allow more racial and economic integration without addressing zoning. That’s both because market-rate multifamily housing tends to be much more affordable than single-family housing built at the same time, and below-market housing in places with high land costs is only financially feasible to build as multi-family housing. Fixing exclusionary planning laws, then, may not be sufficient, but it is necessary.

But most of these municipalities, along with Westchester County executive Robert Astorino, have been defiant. Though they claim they are on pace to create the required 750 below-market housing units (out of more than 340,000 units across the county), fair housing advocates say that many of those are themselves segregated from higher-income neighborhoods.

These results are disappointing, given that the Westchester case may be among the most high-profile legal interventions against segregated housing since an earlier generation of litigation that included the Mount Laurel case in New Jersey. One lesson, perhaps, is that if segregated white and affluent local governments have the tools to enact exclusionary housing policies, they will generally use them—and find other ways to resist court mandates.

Rather, anti-segregation advocates may need to find ways to legislatively curtail the power of exclusionary communities. As we’ve argued before, this is most likely to happen at the state level, because state officials have to answer both to highly privileged, exclusionary communities as well as their less-privileged constituents who may want access to those communities. And in fact, places where states have more power in development policy are less segregated than those with more local power.

These approaches might include measures that disallow regulatory barriers to new housing that don’t serve an important social or environmental safeguard, as with California Governor Jerry Brown’s recent proposals; or they may directly mandate that all municipalities allow a minimum amount of multifamily housing, as in Oregon; or they may allow the state to override local zoning in places with severe affordability issues, as in Massachusetts. But Westchester County—as with the rest of New York state, and the country as a whole—has much farther to come in breaking down public policies that produce and perpetuate segregation.