Viewpoint: Turning Long Island’s housing discrimination scandal into affordable housing solution

Karen Rubin, Columnist

Long Islanders are appropriately mortified by Newsday’s expose into ongoing housing discrimination that builds upon, rather than erases, the earliest government-sanctioned discrimination that led to Long Island having some of the most segregated neighborhoods anywhere. (What a triumphant reminder of the importance of a free press and a robust local press.)

What can be done? New legislation and enforcement by Governor Cuomo and the state legislature, as well as aggressive actions by Nassau County Executive Laura Curran and Suffolk County Executive Steve Ballone – including setting up commissions and increasing enforcement – are great starting places. But the biggest barrier has to do with the economic barriers to diversity that become factors in systemic inequality.

But there are tremendous opportunities inasmuch as our Long Island communities, among the first suburbias, are at a crossroads between atrophying and revitalizing through downtown transit-oriented development.

When you think about it, suburbia was born out of transit-oriented development -the Long Island Railroad and the network of parkways and expressways.

Everything that Trump and Republicans have done – especially from tax policy which disincentivized development of affordable housing, to federal investment, to HUD Secretary Ben Carson’s Scrooge-like policies aimed at attacking poor people and reversing the Obama policy of allowing housing vouchers to be used in any neighborhood (in order to make some dent in segregation), to the latest Trump crusade criminalizing homelessness their policies have helped create.

New York State has tried to fill some of the gap, with investment dollars, mortgage assistance (see SONYMA, which offers two programs, Achieving the Dream and Low Interest Rate, for eligible first-time homebuyers,; tax incentives to developers; a requirement that 10% of units in multi-family buildings be allocated to people who meet criteria and banning various practices that are used to exclude people based on income.

But as we learned at Vision Long Island’s Smart Growth Summit on Affordable Housing, perhaps the biggest barrier still to be overcome is public perception of what affordable housing is, who is served, and how housing development is a benefit, rather than a drain, to local economic revitalization.

“It’s a pretty good time to be in housing in New York State,” said Ralph Fasano of Concern for Independent Living. “There’s a lot of funding. But it is challenging on Long Island. Funding sources want us to develop here, but want they want it quick, not three, four or 40 years. As housing and smart growth advocates, we struggle to overcome that.” The biggest problems after finding sites and raising funding in a timely fashion is surmounting the multiple layers of jurisdictions and overcoming virtually knee-jerk community opposition.

But when you see what these projects look like, how they have transformed blighted, abandoned buildings and sites, or revitalized a brownfield into a thriving settlement, you appreciate the benefits.

“There is a stigma, misunderstanding about affordable housing,” said Nick Strachovsky, KOW Arma Development Consultants, “that people have young kids, that they won’t be able to afford to live here. These are spectacular buildings they can afford because rental is based on the income in the area. Teachers, firefighters, policemen need to live here.

“Affordable housing brings more market-rate housing, more jobs, it brings in commercial, retail, infrastructure, sewers. You won’t have sewers if you don’t have the population to support them– so affordable housing is really critical. It’s time to bring more affordable housing, to build up towns and cities to support upcoming generations.”

And Democratic candidates for President have issued their own proposals to address affordable housing.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar pledges to invest $1 trillion in housing and poverty reduction (correctly making the link). One proposal, in particular, is relevant to what happened on Long Island: Combat segregation and discrimination. Klobuchar would prohibit landlords from discriminating against people based on the source of their income, including housing vouchers or disability benefits.

She would protect renters by preventing the blacklisting of people who have been to court over eviction and prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, or veteran status.

She would suspend the Trump Administration’s proposals to weaken fair housing rules including the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing Rule and restore enforcement and oversight powers to the Office of Fair Lending and Opportunity to monitor fair lending practices and coordinate with the Department of Justice to prevent lending discrimination before it happens.

Klobuchar would update regulations for reverse mortgages to make sure seniors have access to safe products that make it easier to stay in their homes, as well as expand support for affordable senior housing programs that assist people with disabilities.

She proposes a tax credit of up to $6,000 a year to provide financial relief to those caring for an aging relative or a relative with a disability to help offset expenses, including necessary home modifications to allow people to stay in their homes. She would reverse the Trump Administration’s proposed changes to federal housing subsidies that could triple rent for some households and would be particularly harmful for seniors.

Klobuchar would increase access to homeownership, out of reach for too many Americans. She would build on programs that allow certain types of rental housing assistance to be used for homeownership expenses, expand access to capital for down payments and make it easier to build a credit history by allowing credit bureaus to use on-time payment data from cell phone bills, utilities, and rent in calculating credit scores.

Because homeownership still should be fundamental to the American Dream. Renting should be a stepping stone, not a permanent condition. And it would be great to have young people be able to start their lives in our community, graduate to their own home, and for seniors to find suitably sized apartments so they can continue to stay in their community.

Here on the tony North Shore, that means mixed-use developments along the major transit arteries.

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Karen Rubin

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