For years, Eastchester’s zoning code provided Section 8 housing preferences to existing town residents, giving them first crack when the federally subsidized units became available. The measure helped older residents age in place by giving them priority for its housing assistance program, officials of the Westchester town said.
But in a community that’s about 85 percent white, opponents said it also perpetuated existing racial disparities at the expense of Black and Latino applicants. One of those opponents, the Fair Housing Justice Center, challenged the town’s Section 8 housing preference rule in a lawsuit.
Late last month, Eastchester agreed to pay $635,000 in damages and rewrite its zoning code to remove the residency preference for its Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher Program.
In settling the case, Eastchester joins a growing list of Westchester towns that have agreed to six-figure settlements over alleged housing discrimination. Fair Housing Justice Center brought similar suits against Yorktown and Bedford in recent years. Local preference in New York City’s affordable housing lotteries has also been found to reinforce segregation.
Eastchester’s insurance will pay for the settlement and legal costs from the five-year-old case, the town supervisor told LoHud.
The recent settlement could also inform similar cases underway in Nassau and Suffolk counties, and will likely get the attention of more than a dozen Westchester towns that handle Section 8 housing.
Fair Housing Justice Center co-founder Diane Houk said the Eastchester case will affect what those local public housing authorities do, along with “every single village and town that has a zoning code.” Though she left the organization in 2009, Houk was the center’s lead attorney in the Eastchester suit, and was part of its legal teams in cases the group brought against Yorktown and Bedford. Both of those communities are also overwhelmingly white.
The Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher Program was designed to help low-income families pay rent in the private housing market. Typically, tenants contribute about one-third of their income to rent and federal funds pay the rest.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development allows local housing agencies some flexibility in setting preferences for how applicants for the program are selected from waitlists. This leeway allows for stipulations like Eastchester’s “residency preference,” which put existing residents and their families at the top of its Section 8 voucher waitlist.
The results were stark.
Of the 145 people in Eastchester’s Section 8 program, just 3 percent were Black and 6 percent were Latino, according to HUD data. Across Westchester County, 47 percent of Section 8 voucher holders are Black and 26 percent are Latino.
In 2019, the town ceded control of its Section 8 program to the state, Houk said. But that did not spell the end of its residency preference because the priority was built into Eastchester’s zoning code.
Private developers were able to apply for a permit to build senior housing projects in the town, and in exchange, they agreed to set aside 15 percent of units as affordable housing. They would also be required to select applicants from the Section 8 waitlist, according to the residency preference system.
Now, the town will remove the residency preference. Officials will also strike the preference from any affordable housing program it creates in the next 30 years. Eastchester will also do away with any existing agreements that required developments and developers to abide by the system.