Separate and Unequal

April 27, 2014


Westchester County in New York State seems to attract a great deal of attention in the media.


Not long ago, we learned from a posting on Zillow that property owners in Westchester County pay more in property taxes than the typical resident of any other major American county. The average property tax bill for a single family home in Westchester County comes to $14,829 a year (vs. the U.S. median of about $2,800).


There are a number of reasons why property taxes in Westchester County NY are the highest in the nation, but the primary reason is property taxes levied to support public schools.

In a county with a population of just under a million residents, Westchester County taxpayers are supporting some 47 completely autonomous public school districts!


Very recently, Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino made headlines because he continues to battle the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) over compliance with a consent decree approved in 2009 which requires Westchester County to take an active and affirmative role in desegregating local villages and towns in the county which have miniscule populations of African American and Hispanic residents.


Some commentators have applauded Astorino for defying the federal government under the guise that, “(Astorino) is doing his job by protecting the neighborhoods of those who worked very hard to live where they live!”


I’m fine with the notion that people ought to be able to live where they want to live.


However, because New York State allows and encourages public school districts to form around — and to exclusively serve residents of — villages, towns and cities, the impact of this ‘home rule’ approach to public education has created de facto segregation which has produced more egregious and dangerous consequences than the issues debated in the Brown vs. Board of Education case which was decided in 1954 – 60 years ago!


We can clearly witness that “Separate and Unequal” has become the standard in Westchester County.


It becomes very clear from reviewing NYS Education Department statistics that economic and racial segregation in housing translates directly to school inequality and results in disparate student outcomes.


The Village of Scarsdale is one of the communities identified in the Housing Agreement (consent decree) as racially segregated, and thus a priority area for new units of fair and affordable housing.


A report released in late April from US News and World Report reveals that Scarsdale High School was ranked among the very best high schools in Westchester County; in New York State; and across our nation.


In Scarsdale, no students at the High School receive subsidized meals, and just 9% of students are Black or Hispanic. About 8% of Scarsdale students have been classified with a disability, and 68% of those students spend 80% or more of their school time in regular classroom settings. Most recent total per-pupil spending across the Scarsdale schools was $27,219, with $17,450 focused on general education students.


Meanwhile, just 5 miles south of Scarsdale High School is Mount Vernon High School, where 70% of students receive subsidized meals, and where 95% of students are Black or Hispanic.


About 16% of Mount Vernon Students have been classified with a disability, and just 48% of those students spend 80% or more of their school time in regular classroom settings.


Most recent total per-pupil spending across the Mount Vernon public schools was $23,560, with just $11,641 centered on general education students.


The real test may be in graduation rates.  For the class of 2012, 95% of Scarsdale seniors graduated with Regents diplomas; at Mount Vernon High School, just 52% of seniors graduated with a Regents diploma.


The attitudes and actions of public officials should set a positive example for all people, affirming that our elected leadership is fair, honest and forward thinking.


There really is no place in our current society for personal private agendas – working against the general public good – on the part of our elected officials.


Municipal and school district consolidation seems to be the only rational resolution — why is this solution so difficult to discuss and resolve?


A modest article published in the August 4, 2012 issue of The Journal News provides some continuing details on the apparent impasse between Westchester County Executive Astorino and HUD on the need for “source of income legislation” in relation to the 2009 settlement with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The terms of the settlement require Westchester County to take several steps to break down the effects of housing discrimination, including building 750 units of affordable housing in mostly white communities and marketing those units in areas with largely non-white populations. At the time of the settlement, the County also agreed to “promote” source-of-income legislation. The definition of promote has been and continues to be a “sticky wicket” in the discussions.

Here is a link to the article:


As a taxpayer in Westchester County, I am very puzzled as to how this constant bickering can possibly be productive. I am further concerned that the continuing obfuscation detracts from the ability of our County government to do the work of the people, and further, is wasting precious County resources on legal costs and other unnecessary expenditures.

The Equal Credit Opportunity Act (ECOA) prohibits credit discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, marital status, age, or source of income.

Housing Choice Vouchers (a.k.a. ‘Section 8’) are generally and widely accepted as a legitimate and stable source of income for housing purposes.

The great majority of people I’ve met who are eligible to receive Housing Choice Vouchers are people of good will who just want a decent and safe place to live and raise their children (or, in some cases, grandchildren) and to be able to feel confident their children have the same opportunity for a ‘free and appropriate public school education’ as other children in nearby neighborhoods and/or towns.

Landlords can most effectively screen potential tenants by: (1) employing a standard and uniform application; (2) run a credit report; (3) check references; and (4) verify income sources.

Using a consistent decision-making process for any prospective tenant is considered a “best practice” by a number of sources, including

Background & Definitions

The housing choice voucher program (often called “Section 8”) is a national program for assisting very low-income families, the elderly, and the disabled to afford decent, safe, and sanitary housing in the private market. Housing choice vouchers are administered locally by public housing agencies (PHAs). The PHAs receive federal funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to administer the voucher program. Since housing assistance is provided on behalf of the family or individual, participants are free to find their own housing, including single-family homes, townhouses and apartments. The participant is free to choose any housing that meets the requirements of the program and is not limited to units located in subsidized housing projects. A family that is issued a housing voucher is responsible for finding a suitable housing unit of the family’s choice where the owner agrees to rent under the program. Rental units must meet minimum standards of health and safety, as determined by the PHA. A housing subsidy is paid to the landlord directly by the PHA on behalf of the participating family. The family then pays the difference between the actual rent charged by the landlord and the amount subsidized by the program.

Under certain circumstances, if authorized by the PHA, a family may use its voucher to purchase a modest home.

Source of Income Legislation in this context would cause “Source of Income” to become a protected class under Westchester’s Fair Housing Law, and would include any legal, verifiable income derived from social security, or any form of federal, state or local public assistance or housing assistance, including Housing Choice Vouchers.

Disparate impact is a legal concept used to describe situations where an apparently neutral practice has an unexpected or unjustified adverse impact on members of a protected class. Typically, a plaintiff must prove that the challenged practice or selection device has a substantial adverse impact on a protected group. Generally, this proof is offered through statistical comparisons.

Protected classes in the sale and rental of housing (as defined by the Federal Fair Housing Act) include: (a) race; (b) color; (c) national origin; (d) religion; (e) sex; (f) familial status; or (g) handicap.

Some clear and obvious examples of discrimination illustrated on HUD’s website include:
• Refusal to rent or sell housing;
• Refusal to negotiate for housing;
• Make housing unavailable;
• Deny a dwelling;
• Set different terms, conditions or privileges for sale or rental of a dwelling;
• Provide different housing services or facilities;
• Falsely deny that housing is available for inspection, sale, or rental;
• For profit, persuade owners to sell or rent (blockbusting); or
• Deny anyone access to or membership in a facility or service (such as a multiple listing service) related to the sale or rental of housing.

Note: The Fair Housing Act covers most housing. In some circumstances, the Act exempts owner-occupied buildings with no more than four units, single-family housing sold or rented without the use of a broker, and housing operated by organizations and private clubs that limit occupancy to members.

Selected Census Demographics for Westchester County

Westchester County is a county located in the U.S. state of New York. Westchester covers an area of 450 square miles and — according to the 2010 Census — has a population of 949,113 residing in 45 municipalities. A quick review of some demographics captured in the Census reveals:
• Median Household Income: $79,619
• % of Persons living at or below Poverty Level: 8.2%
• % Persons under 18 years: 23.6%
• % Persons over 65 years: 14.8%
• % White, not Hispanic: 56.9%
• % Black or African American: 14.8%
• % Hispanic or Latino Origin:  22.4%

Housing Choice Voucher recipients in Westchester County have a much different profile than residents of the County overall. Based on data submitted to HUD from PHAs in Westchester which administer these vouchers (Form HUD-50058) for the period 4/01/2011 through 7/31/2012 , the voucher recipients are:
• Average Annual Income:  $20,236
• % of Persons living at or below Poverty Level:  Not Available
• % Persons under 18 years:  27.0%
• % Persons over 62 years:  29.0%
• % White, not Hispanic:  48.0%
• % Black or African American:  50.0%
• % Hispanic or Latino Origin:   34.0%


There seems to be sufficient evidence to warrant a statistical analysis to measure the probability that inaction by Westchester County on Source of Income Legislation has exacerbated disparate treatment of individuals protected under the Fair Housing Act and other protections guaranteed in the laws of our land.