Housing-Bias Decision in Yonkers May Hold Lesson for Other Cities
By William Snider
Recent events have assured that Yonkers, N.Y., will no longer be best remembered as the fictional locale for the Broadway hit, "Hello Dolly."
For the past month, as it struggled with a court-approved housing plan, the tranquil city of Dolly Levi has been portrayed in national news reports as a throwback to the 1950's and 60's, a time when bitter resistance to school integration brought out the worst in communities nationwide.
But civil-rights experts insist that, in many ways, Yonkers may represent the future more than the past.
For them, the drama of the city's long-running desegregation case lies not in the community protests it fostered, but in its painstakingly argued--and virtually unprecedented--proof that a 40-year-history of discriminatory housing practices had contributed to the continuing segregation of schools.
The federal judge who tried the Yonkers case "said what everybody knows--that discrimination in housing and discrimination in education are the same problem," said Galen A. Martin, a 27-year veteran of the civil-rights movement who is currently the executive director of the Kentucky Commission on Human Rights.
"You can't deal with one without dealing with the other," he said.
Few of the experts interviewed in recent weeks said they thought that similar lawsuits alleging discrimination in both housing and education could be successfully filed against other communities. But most predicted an increase in suits alleging discrimination in housing.
That is a development, they said, that could force other cities to adopt residential desegregation plans similar to the one approved for implementation in Yonkers. And those plans could not only affect desegregation efforts currently underway in many school districts, but also the broader search for solutions to the problem of underachievement among poor and minority pupils.
'Difficult Case To Litigate'
Yonkers, which is bordered by the Bronx and the Hudson River, was first sued for maintaining segregated schools and housing by the U.S. Justice Department in 1979, after decades of complaints by minority residents about their treatment by city officials.
The suit was later joined by the Yonkers branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and proceeded to a 14-month trial after efforts to negotiate a settlement failed.
The combination of housing and education in the same lawsuit made it "an extremely difficult case to litigate," said Thomas I. Atkins, a private civil-rights lawyer who was general counsel of the naacp at the time.
"There are very few instances when trials are as long as that one," Mr. Atkins recalled. "We couldn't have made it without the involvement and resources of the Justice Department."
In 1985, U.S. District Judge Leonard B. Sand issued a 600-page opinion in which he cited much of the city of Yonkers had intentionally and illegally discriminated against blacks in housing and school policies.
The primary means that the city used to isolate minorities, he said, was in the choice of where to locatepublic housing. Virtually all of the more than 6,000 subsidized-housing units built in the city since World War II were in the city's southwest quadrant.
The discrimination in Yonkers "was manifest not only in housing, but also in their schools," said William Bradford Reynolds Jr., assistant secretary for civil rights in the Justice Department, in a recent interview.
"Decisions were made in a concerted way to isolate blacks and make sure they were kept away from the whites," he said.
City officials and their lawyers have acknowledged that racial separation was a fact. But they have argued repeatedly that it was not the result of intentional discrimination, but of a combination of practical and historical factors.
Their appeal of Judge Sand's ruling on those grounds was rejected by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit and denied review by the U.S Supreme Court this summer.
As a remedy for what he termed 40 years of constitutional violations, Judge Sand in 1986 ordered the city to devise and implement plans to desegregate both its neighborhoods and its schools.
A school-desegregation plan relying largely on voluntary student transfers was in place by the opening of school in 1986, having faced only token opposition. To date, it has been judged by most parties to be a qualified success.
But members of the city council continued to oppose efforts to implement the housing plan.
"Tied up in the housing issue are concerns about status and property values, and to some degree it can be a more emotional issue than school desegregation," said William Taylor, a longtime civil-rights lawyer who has litigated cases involving both issues.
The "emotional" aspects proved powerful in Yonkers, after Judge Sand ordered the city to build 200 units of low-income housing and 800 units of middle-income housing in areas of the city that do not currently contain any subsidized housing.
Twice before this summer, Judge Sand had threatened the city with escalating fines for denying his orders to begin implementing the housing plan. Last January, his warning prompted a reluctant council to approve a consent decree that outlined the details of how and where the housing units were to be built.
$1 Million-Per-Day Fines
"This was not some judge acting on his own, imposing some draconian remedy," said Mr. Reynolds, noting the council's earlier approval.
"We worked diligently and excruciatingly to fashion a remedy that they could accept and that would avoid the need for the court to come in and impose its own views," he said.
But by midsummer, community opposition to the plan had grown so heated that the council, on a vote of 4 to 3, refused to approve the changes in the city's zoning code that were needed to carry it out.
Judge Sand on Aug. 2 found both the city and the four dissenting councilmen in contempt of court for refusing to approve the changes.
"Having agreed to a remedy that was thoughtful and effective, we suddenly had an about-face by people in Yonkers who decided they were going to thumb their noses at the court decree," said Mr. Reynolds.
The city councilmen were ordered to pay $500 in fines each day that they refused to approve the plan, and faced the prospect of being jailed on the 10th day of their defiance.
Those penalties were stayed by the U.S. Supreme Court this month, pending resolution of a request by the councilmen that the Court hear their appeal of the contempt-of-court citations.
But the fines against the city, which were set at $100 the first day and were to double each subsequent day, were upheld by the higher courts, although they were capped at a maximum of $1 million per day.
By Sept. 10, when the city council agreed to approve the zoning changes, the fines had reached the $1 million-per-day mark. And a state financial board that had taken control of the city's spending was scheduled to begin drastically cutting city services and laying off hundreds of city employees.
Judge Sand said in a hearing last week that he would consider modifications to the housing plan, as requested by two councilmen who had switched their votes to support the zoning changes.
Case Not Easily Duplicated
The link forged in the Yonkers case between segregation in housing and education marks a significant legal development, civil-rights experts say. But few view the prospect of attempting to draw similar links in other cases with enthusiasm.
Mr. Reynolds advised that if separate lawsuits are filed on each issue, "you're probably going to get to the desired end a lot quicker."
School systems have always been the favored targets of civil-rights actions, others said last week, because the existence of a single governing body makes for easier litigation.
Housing policy, they noted, is typically set by several separate boards and is also influenced by the actions of private realtors, many of whom would also have to be involved in any comprehensive remedy.
"Under ordinary circumstances, it is far more difficult to fashion relief for housing discrimination," said Mr. Taylor, because "there's not a whole lot of government control over the housing market."
"If you're dealing with a single set of school officials," he said, "you can get remedies a lot more easily."
Marshall Kaplan, dean of the graduate school of urban policy at the University of Colorado, noted that this fact "has forced all of the burden of integrating society onto educational institutions."
It would be "far better," he argued, if cities would craft their housing policies to encourage residential integration, thus obviating the need for student busing.
Reopening Old Wounds
But while many communities have learned to live with massive school-desegregation plans, efforts to integrate housing have often reopened wounds that seemed to be healed.
In Boston, for instance, the announcement by Mayor Raymond Flynn last fall that the city would, for the first time, begin placing black families in three public-housing projects on the city's South Side prompted protests by residents similar to those over school desegregation there 13 years ago.
In taking the action, Mayor Flynn was seeking to head off an almost certain lawsuit stemming from investigations by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. But the action cost him political support in his home district.
"What's happening in Boston may be a better model than Yonkers," noted Mr. Atkins, who was a lead lawyer in its school-desegregation case. "The Mayor has put the prestige and muscle of his office behind the effort to find a solution."
For housing integration to become accepted in other communities, he added, "requires city fathers to get actively involved."
Patterns Said 'Hardly Changed'
The federal Fair Housing Act of 1968 has done little to change the historic pattern of residential segregation in American cities, a recent study concluded.
"Despite the advent of fair-housing legislation, more tolerant white racial attitudes, and a growing black middle class with income sufficient to promote residential mobility, the segregation of blacks in large cities hardly changed" from 1970 to 1980, the 1987 study found.
The study, involving census data from 60 of the nation's largest urban areas, was conducted by two sociologists, Douglas S. Massey of the University of Chicago and Nancy A. Denton of the University of Pennsylvania.
They found that the residential segregation of blacks, unlike that of Hispanics and other minorities, was apparently unrelated to their income level. They concluded that "it is not race that matters, but black race."
Several recent developments, however, may accelerate the drive by civil-rights activists to increase housing integration.
Last week, President Reagan signed a bill that significantly strengthens enforcement of the major federal law banning discrimination in housing, the Civil Rights Act of 1968. The amendments to the Fair Housing Act, as that legislation has come to be known, will for the first time allow victims of housing discrimination to claim monetary damages. It will also allow the federal government to impose fines on those who discriminate.
The use of "testers" to ferret out private realtors who steer renters and buyers to neighborhoods occupied primarily by residents of a particular race has also been upheld by the Supreme Court, and is now a common practice in state and federal housing agencies.
A Better Precedent?
In addition, lawsuits that allege housing discrimination based on the effect of city policies, rather than on any provable intention to discriminate, have been successful in a few instances.
The Supreme Court has been asked to review one such case. In it, Huntington, N.Y., was found to have perpetuated segregation by restricting the construction of apartment units to one predominantly minority neighborhood.
Many experts predict that the Huntington ruling, if upheld, will set a much better precedent than Yonkers for other suits, because it does not involve the difficult burden of proving that city officials consciously intended to discriminate against minorities.
Mr. Reynolds, however, disputed that view. The Justice Department has filed a brief asking the High Court to review the Huntington case, he said, because "to suggest that housing policy can be faulted under the 'effects' test goes beyond anything Congress has indicated" in civil-rights statutes.
"It is fair to say that every city and suburban area in this country has distinct racial neighborhoods and that people have chosen for good and sufficient reasons to locate there," he said.
The battleground over residential segregation will more likely center on public housing, the one area of housing policy where city officials have complete control.
"Two decades ago, we regrettably made a public-policy decision to place a large amount of new public housing into areas of cities that already housed those people at the lower end of the income scale," Mr. Reynolds said.
"Public housing is infinitely more segregated than private housing,'' added Mr. Martin of Kentucky, who has charged the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development with being the "chief segregator in this country."
Since the 1960's, the major means of reducing segregation in public housing has been the use of "scatter-site" housing to spread small develel10lopments throughout a metropolitan area. Much of the impetus for that approach came from a discrimination suit in Chicago, which resulted in a court order requiring the Chicago Housing Authority to build much of its new housing in white neighborhoods.
Although such projects often face stiff neighborhood opposition, studies have shown that residents' fears of higher crime rates and lower property values are rarely borne out.
Dismantling the 'Ghetto System'
The importance of this movement for educators was illustrated by a 1985 Northwestern University study of some of the first black students who moved to the scatter-site housing created in Chicago's suburbs.
While these students faced many of the same economic and social barriers to learning as their inner-city counterparts, the study concluded, they welcomed and met the tougher challenges of the suburban schools.
"That study really shows that you can take people from extreme isolation, move them into areas where they are a very small minority, and get good school results with no support system," said Gary Orfield, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago.
Educators will never be able to close the achievement gap of minorities, Mr. Orfield argued, until policymakers choose "to dismantle the ghetto system."
The combined impact of current housing policies and the tradition of neighborhood schooling, he said, produces a "system that allows you to provide totally unequal education to one population."
The recent massive federal study of the Chapter 1 program lends support to this argument. It found that students living in neighborhoods with high concentrations of poverty were far more likely--even if they themselves were not poor--to experience significant learning difficulties.
The Congress recognized that phenomenon when it decided to target more Chapter 1 funds to high-poverty schools using "concentration grants."
Louisville and Denver Models
For most school districts, however, a more immediate concern is achieving stable levels of student integration with a minimum of busing.
Several school-desegregation orders and consent decrees--including the one reached last fall between Milwaukee and the state of Wisconsin--include provisions intended to promote greater residential integration.
The example cited most often by civil-rights experts is Louisville, Ky.
There, a federal court order included a provision that encouraged families to move to neighborhoods where their race was in the minority. Children whose families made such moves were exempted from being bused to a school outside their new neighborhood.
Thousands of families took advantage of the provision between 1975 and 1980, according to Mr. Martin, with the result, he said, that "the school system was able to revamp its desegregation plan and cut back on busing very significantly."
In Denver, where the public schools were recently freed from some of the constraints of a court-ordered desegregation plan, officials have embarked on a similar effort.
The schools have provided demographic information to the Denver Housing Group, a nonprofit agency established by the the city's housing authority to purchase units for subsidized housing in neighborhoods where the placement of minority families would help balance school enrollments.
Although no families have yet been placed under the program, the Denver Housing Group has already purchased 22 housing units, and has committed $1 million to buying a total of 100 units within the next year, according to Joyce L. Alms, an agency spokesman.
"Some people believed that if you integrated the schools, natural integration would follow," said the city's former superintendent, James P. Scammon, who is currently serving as director of curriculum and instruction for the district.
"That has happened somewhat," he said, "but not to the extent that people had hoped."