Editorial: Nassau: Separate and unequal

It was already common knowledge that Nassau County was one of the most segregated suburban counties in the country before Newsday recently published the results of its three-year investigation of Long Island real estate practices.

But the paper’s series not only helped highlight just how segregated the county is No. 1 in America among those with 1.2 million to 1.6 million residents, but why.

It is a story that goes back many decades and, as the series demonstrated in exhaustive detail, continues to this day.

The current incarnation of discrimination revealed by Newsday showed that black home buyers are treated differently than whites. They are steered to black neighborhoods and they are more closely scrutinized by brokers.

Real estate agents also gave white buyers more listings than black buyers and some declined to do business in areas with large minority populations.

This goes a long way in explaining why most black residents live in just 11 of Long Island’s 291 communities, according to Newsday’s series.

The discrimination found by Newsday violates the Fair Housing Act, approved as part of the 1968 Civil Rights Act, banning discrimination in housing based on race, religion, national origin, sex, handicap or family status.

This was seen as a landmark decision not only for blacks but Jews and other Americans who had been blocked by federal, state and local laws from living or buying homes in majority-white or non-Jewish neighborhoods.

The Federal Housing Administration, which provided government-backed loans for home purchases, actually led the effort to discriminate against non-whites by pioneering a technique that came to be known as red-lining.

Under this process, the FHA maintained color-coded maps of neighborhoods across the United States. They marked off areas where black people lived, then refused to insure mortgages in those areas.

These same federal rules prevented blacks from buying homes in new developments like Levittown – even under the G.I. Bill.

The federal government’s help was actually not needed in places like Levittown as William J. Levitt, the creator of prefabricated, concrete-slab homes, included restrictive covenants that barred leasing and sales to blacks.

The covenants were invalidated by a Supreme Court decision in 1948, but Levitt continued to exclude black families until April 1968, six days after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.

This goes a long way to explaining the startling wealth gap in the United States between blacks and whites where homeownership plays an oversized role.

The median wealth of white Americans is $134,000, according to the Economic Policy Institute. The median wealth of black Americans is $11,030. The math is not complicated if you think about the cost of a home purchased after the war and its value now.

Elected officials have been quick to respond to Newsday’s series.

More than a dozen Democratic members of Congress on Friday called on the federal Departments of Justice and Housing and Urban Development to investigate what Newsday had found. To which, we say, with Donald Trump as president, good luck.

More likely is the help of New York State with Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a former head of HUD. Although even his follow-through is not assured. He said in February 2016 that New York would launch a “fair housing program,” but failed to do so.

Cuomo ordered a state probe after Newsday’s three-year investigation was published.

He also announced a new social media campaign to raise awareness of housing bias, a new housing discrimination hotline where home-seekers can file complaints, and new state regulations requiring real estate agents to make more disclosures to prospective home buyers and renters about fair housing laws.

The governor was joined by state Attorney General Letitia James, who announced probes of housing discrimination on Long Island. Spurred by Newsday’s report, the state Senate announced plans to hold a joint three-committee public hearing on Long Island next month on housing discrimination.

Nassau County Executive Laura Curran then announced what she called a “historic” and sustained, multipronged action plan with broad bipartisan support to root out “unacceptable” housing discrimination in the county.

The effort will include enforcement, education and community engagement efforts, she said.

These are important steps – especially if the officials follow through once the cameras stop rolling. But even then these steps are not enough to address the gap between blacks and whites in Nassau County that government helped create in many ways, large and small.

A good start would be zoning changes that permit more affordable housing. This would serve people who have faced housing discrimination in the past as well as the young and older residents who want to live in the area but are tired of the demands of homeownership.

The county can also provide immediate relief to minorities by not waiting five years to fully implement changes in property taxes resulting from Nassau’s first reassessment in eight years.

According to another Newsday study, about $2.2 billion in taxes were shifted over seven years from generally more affluent property owners who successfully appealed their property taxes to generally less affluent owners who did not – many of whom were minorities.

All property owners should begin paying their fair share now.

The state must also address the gross inequities of how we fund our schools – and how much is spent per pupil.

There is nothing fair about a system in which a school district such as Sewanhaka spends $24,000 per pupil and an adjacent school district in Great Neck spends $34,000 per student.

This has a name – destiny by zip code – and we are confident that you will find the disparities in spending closely follow the disparities in the racial composition of school districts.

A recent report from the Manhattan-based Citizens Budget Commission concluded that 29 school districts in New York – including Wyandanch and Brentwood – are so underfunded that they will struggle this year to provide a “sound, basic education” required by the state Constitution.

The answer is easy – more state aid to school districts whose spending per pupil falls below a level needed to guarantee an equal education. And exempt those school districts from the state-mandated tax cap to help narrow the gap in spending.

Otherwise, let’s just call Nassau County what it is – separate and unequal.

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The Island Now

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