Recently, new developments and re-zonings promising community and retail amenities alongside thousands of new affordable housing units have been stymied in Two Bridges and Inwood. Now, plans for substantial injections of the aforementioned components by the Olnick Organization at Harlem‘s Lenox Terrace have been attacked as well. Spearheaded by Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, the latest effort constitutes a contemporary example of redlining, and is an explicit violation of the National Civil Rights Act of 1968.
When discussing the topic of redlining and the shifting meaning of the word, a brief history on the subject is a necessary. The National Housing Act of 1934 marked the start of formalizing redlining, and it remained firmly entrenched until the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1968. This included the Fair Housing Act, which added a litany of new protections, and most pertinent to events currently in discussion, prohibited “restricting access to services and amenities on the basis of the renter’s race, gender, religion, or nationality.”
Although the Fair Housing Act added Federal pressure against redlining, many states and communities saw the practice continue. Additional action was taken to end redlining with the passage of the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act of 1975, which mandated transparency regarding mortgages, and the subsequent passage of the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977, which was passed in an effort to enable all Americans regardless of race or income to obtain home ownership.
Even after redlining was formally made illegal, it took another seven years for the practice to actually end, because without transparency of their books, banks were allowed to continue the process behind closed doors until 1975. Though redlining mortgages may be over today, the impacts of what happened between 1934 and 1975 still echo across New York City and all of America, as the disinvestment and disenfranchisement wrought from that era did not simply disappear when the new rules were created.
Thus, modern day redlining is somewhat different from the overt and explicitly racist policies of yesteryear. Previous decades of disinvestment have encouraged the growth of various retail deserts, where many amenities, especially supermarkets, are few and far between. Although this falls outside the topic of mortgage denial, it still falls under the peripheral umbrella of the Fair Housing Act, which, as mentioned, explicitly prohibits “restricting access to services and amenities on the basis of the renter’s race, gender, religion, or nationality.”
Specific plans [for Lenox Terrace] still include the construction of five 28-story residential towers that would introduce 1,600 new apartment units. Approximately 400 to 500 apartments would be designated affordable in compliance with the city’s Mandatory Inclusionary Housing standards. Modified retail area would measure 160,000 square feet. The project would also create six acres of green space and a mix of amenities available to all Lenox Terrace residents.
In her opposition to the rezoning for Lenox Terrace, Brewer leads with the following three paragraphs:
While the guise of insufficient infrastructure leads the writing, the second paragraph explicitly says that due to 1,200 new market rate units, there would be “a significant shift in the area’s demographic composition… recent trends have resulted in gentrification and led to a decrease in the area’s Black population.”
In her rebuttal of a project that would provide 500 affordable housing units, 1,200 market rate units, and a litany of new retail and community facility options, Brewer specifically mentions race as a reason why it should be disapproved, on the basis that Harlem’s Black population should apparently continue to be segregated from the rest of the city’s demographics and held at a constant percentage. Whether a neighborhood is turning more white, more black, or whatever color on the spectrum of human skin tones, such language and said actions are explicitly prohibited by the Civil Rights Act of 1968.
Attempts to preserve racial compositions of any neighborhood are explicitly illegal according to Federal Law, yet this is exactly what Brewer has advocated for in the instance of Lenox Terrace as it relates to Harlem. While Brewer’s push for what is tantamount to segregation is the most offensive and illegal aspect of her recommendation against the project, it is also an affront to existing residents of the neighborhood, where a lack of amenities is still a holdover from the redlining policies pre-1975, and where denial of the construction of such amenities on the basis of race is actually unconstitutional.
While disinvestment and its subsequent consequences are impactful to those affected by these phenomena, the segregation that also resulted from these misinformed practices made things worse. As one of the most diverse cities on the planet, most New Yorkers are aware and actively acknowledge that diversity is a draw, a constant, and an asset to the metropolis, if not its greatest strength. In fact, segregated neighborhoods without diversity suffer even more dramatically. In Racial Discrimination and Redlining in Cities, authors Nicolas Boccard and Yves Zenou conclude:
While explicitly racist and illegal policy-making is the most deplorable aspect of this entire performance, the futility of these efforts make said illegalities all the more pathetic. The developer behind the plans for Lenox Terrace, the Olnick Organization, can proceed with an as-of-right version that will still result in four new towers. The amount of housing would be substantially reduced, with the affordable component eliminated in its entirety, and the retail and amenity component would also be scaled down substantially. With the basis for opposing the expansion of amenities to a neighborhood resting on the basis of maintaining a constant ratio of skin tone, this constitutes a clear violation of the Fair Housing Act.
Juxtaposing what can be built as-of-right, what has been proposed before the city, and the objections to the project issued by Manhattan’s Borough President, factors combine to present a clear violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1968. The denial of employment opportunities associated with new retail and community facility space, the disallowance of affordable and market rate housing that would benefit all New Yorkers of all colors, and the explicitly racial basis provided by Gale Brewer’s office for doing so, constitute an effort that is truly deplorable.
As stated in 42 U.S. Code § 1983, Civil action for deprivation of rights,
Every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State or Territory or the District of Columbia, subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law, suit in equity, or other proper proceeding for redress, except that in any action brought against a judicial officer for an act or omission taken in such officer’s judicial capacity, injunctive relief shall not be granted unless a declaratory decree was violated or declaratory relief was unavailable.
Since her tenure began, Gale Brewer has deprived both Manhattanites and New Yorkers at large of opportunities, from denying the construction of new schools on the Upper West Side, to repeatedly taking the side of moneyed NIMBYs in efforts to curtail skyscraper construction in some of the densest residential neighborhoods on the planet. While these efforts were not explicitly illegal and in violation of Federal Law, the latest attack on New Yorkers of all colors is blatantly unconstitutional, and warrants her immediate resignation and removal from office.