Snob Zones

Long known as an affluent suburban oasis just to the north of New York City, Westchester County has lately gained infamy as a bastion of exclusion.

An anti-discrimination group sued the county in 2006, questioning why it remains strikingly segregated despite having vowed to further fair housing as a condition of receiving tens of millions in federal housing grants over the years. After a federal judge ruled that the county had “utterly failed” to comply with fair housing mandates, Westchester officials signed on to a settlement requiring that they remove zoning obstacles and build hundreds of units of affordable housing in mostly white areas. But in the four years since, county officials have stubbornly resisted nearly every aspect of the settlement, particularly the requirement that they take on exclusionary zoning.

The sad truth is, 45 years after passage of the Fair Housing Act, Westchester isn’t so different from countless other suburbs throughout the New York metro area and well beyond. The notion that homeowners have a right to decide who comes into their town continues to be alarmingly pervasive, as do the exclusionary tactics that stoke the country’s increasing class segregation.

I have spent the past few years examining exclusionary attitudes in suburban towns, particularly around affordable housing. I have found that exclusionary practices are almost always cloaked as noble efforts to maintain town “character,” slow down growth, or protect the environment. In pricey Roxbury, Ct., for example, zoning commissioners justified their decision to boost the minimum lot size from three acres to four – that is, a minimum of four acres per house — as necessary to preserve the town’s rural atmosphere. But isn’t it also a way of preserving the status quo, and keeping certain others out? The zoning chairman later alluded to as much when, during a discussion about whether to allow for some smaller lots, he worried aloud that the people who might live on smaller properties “are not all gonna be good guys from our hometown. There’s some families that could move in from someplace that is not as pristine as Roxbury.”

This fear of “the other” is such that even when towns make room for lower-priced or affordable housing, they may also try to control who moves in. Darien, Ct., for example, one of the state’s wealthiest and whitest communities, seemed to be moving toward openness when it adopted an “inclusionary” zoning policy that requires developers to include at least a unit or two of affordable housing in multifamily projects. It turned out, however, that Darien’s brand of inclusion smacked of exclusion. The policy reserved the affordable units for what it termed a “Priority Population.” Who made up this privileged population? People already living and/or working in Darien, as well as former residents who wanted to move back.

Not all communities are so subtle about their desire to keep out the poor. Nor are they all wealthy — exclusionary attitudes cut across all classes. Take the average-income town of Ossipee, NH, which adopted a zoning code that flatly prohibited any new construction of multifamily housing. When a developer who wanted to build workforce housing sought an exception to the blatantly discriminatory rule, angry townspeople objected, arguing that such housing would attract troublemakers and children with expensive special needs. One woman declared that she’d moved to Ossipee because the zoning “didn’t allow for these types of things.”

Clearly, the Fair Housing Act alone was not enough to erode the hardened attitudes that led to its passage in the first place. Since the 1980s, neighborhoods in the country’s 30 largest metro areas have become increasingly segregated by income, according to a Pew report. This walling off of certain communities has exacerbated education inequality and sprawl, and contributed to the high cost of housing. Strong enforcement of anti-discrimination and affordable housing laws is as vital now as it was a half-century ago.


Lisa Prevost is the author of the recently published Snob Zones: Fear, Prejudice and Real Estate (Beacon Press, May 2013). She has written extensively about real estate for the New York Times.


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