A suburban community on Long Island wanted to rezone public property so it could sell the property to developers and close a budget gap. Initially, the village was going to allow for multi-family zoning. Then the community objected, and the village instead rezoned the property for mostly single-family homes. The district court found the village liable under the Fair Housing Act for intentional discrimination, and the Court of Appeals affirms.
The case is MHANY Management v. County of Nassau, decided on March 23. After the Village of Garden City took up the initial zoning change for multi-family housing, residents objected, using what the district court interpreted as racial code-words. People worried that the property would consist of "affordable housing." Others said (1) the housing would not fit within the "flavor and character" of Garden City; (2) the apartments would have too many people living in them; and (3) the development would be an affront to those who had moved there from Queens, where multi-family housing led to overcrowded apartments and overburdened schools. After the community objected to the rezoning, unlike the initial rezoning process which moved at a snail's pace, the village quickly changed its plans, moving to rezone the property so that most of the housing would be single-family. The district court said the rezoning would have a disparate impact on potential minority homeowners.
The Court of Appeals (Pooler, Lohier and Droney) finds the district court was able to find the village liable for intentional discrimination under the Fair Housing Act. This case tells us how much authority the district courts have in reaching factual findings. From the Second Circuit's ruling, I cannot see any overt racial comments from the community in opposition to the multi-family rezoning. But the village's abrupt change of course in cutting the usual procedural corners to mostly exclude multi-family housing in the aftermath of citizen complaints that fell within the realm of racial objections was enough to find that the village capitulated to racial objections. That capitulation violates the civil rights laws, even if the government decisionmakers themselves were not racists. The crux of the Second Circuit's reasoning on the racial fears is below:
In considering the sequence of events leading up to the adoption of R‐T zoning, the district court also focused closely on the nature of the citizen complaints regarding R‐M zoning. Citizens expressed concerns about R‐M zoning changing Garden City’s “character” and “flavor.” In addition, contrary to Garden City’s contentions that any references to affordable housing were isolated, citizens repeatedly and forcefully expressed concern that R‐M zoning would be used to introduce affordable housing and associated undesirable elements into their community. Residents expressed concerns about development that would lead to “sanitation [that] is overrun,” “full families living in one bedroom townhouses, two bedroom co‐ops” and “four people or ten people in an apartment.” Other residents requested that officials “guarantee” that the housing would be “upscale” because of concerns “about a huge amount of apartments that come and depress the market for any co‐op owner in this Village.”
The district court also noted Garden City residents’ concerns about the Balboni Bill and the possibility of creating “affordable housing,” specifically discussing a flyer warning that property values might decrease if apartments were built on the Site and that such apartments might be required to include affordable housing under legislation pending in the State legislature. This flyer came to the attention of at least two trustees, as well as Fish and Schoelle. Concerned about the Balboni Bill, Garden City residents urged the Village officials to “play it safe” and “vote for single family homes.” Viewing this opposition in light of (1) the racial makeup of Garden City, (2) the lack of affordable housing in Garden City, and (3) the likely number of minorities that would have lived in affordable housing at the Social Services Site, ‐ the district court concluded that Garden City officials’ abrupt change of course was a capitulation to citizen fears of affordable housing, which reflected race‐based animus.
The Second Circuit also cites social science research to the effect that "people believe that the majority of public housing residents are people of color, specifically African American." Research also shows that the public comments are "recognized code words about low-income minority housing."
The district court's authority to resolve factual issues about the community's intent and the village's capitulation is quite broad and almost unreviewable on appeal. The village argued that the abrupt change in course in rezoning the property was simply efficient government decisionmaking. It also noted that no one said anything explicitly racial. But the civil rights laws recognize that racism can be subtle. As the Second Circuit notes:
Garden City’s argument appears to boil down to the following – because no one ever said anything overtly race‐based, this was all just business as usual. But the district court was entitled to conclude, based on the Arlington Heights factors, that something was amiss here, and that Garden City’s abrupt shift in zoning in the face of vocal citizen opposition to changing the character of Garden City represented acquiescence to race‐based animus.
Stephen Bergstein is a civil rights lawyer in Orange County, N.Y. He has briefed or argued more than 200 appeals in the state and federal courts.