A federal judge ruled Friday that an overwhelmingly white, wealthy Long Island village illegally tried to keep minority families from living there.
U.S. District Judge Arthur D. Spatt ruled the Village of Garden City violated federal housing laws when it enacted zoning rules that blocked the construction of apartments.
The decision represented a victory for activists who have long lamented racial and economic segregation in suburban Long Island.
“Basically, what it’s telling municipal governments like the Village of Garden City is that you can’t use zoning as a weapon to exclude housing that would be occupied by minorities,” said Stanley Brown, the plaintiffs’ attorney.
Garden City officials said they intended to appeal the decision, adding they had “no discriminatory intent.”
“The village’s decision was made based on legitimate concerns over increased traffic congestion, parking, school and public service impacts and population density,” village officials said in a statement.
The decision stems from a case dating back to 2005, when the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or Acorn, sued Garden City after the village stymied a plan to build 311 apartments on a 25-acre plot of Nassau County-owned land.
The village, facing a public outcry, scrapped a zoning plan that would have allowed multifamily housing on the site, and opted instead for zoning rules that allowed single-family houses. Eventually, the county dropped plans to sell the site.
“What this case points to is the fact that these enclaves, these villages, cannot get away with using their zoning laws as an excuse to prevent affordable housing,” said Frederick Brewington, another attorney for the plaintiffs.
Housing discrimination has been a contentious issue for decades across the New York suburbs. A 1983 New Jersey state Supreme Court ruling, stemming from alleged discrimination in Mount Laurel, N.J., required municipalities to affirmatively use their zoning powers to provide opportunities for affordable housing.
In Westchester County, housing discrimination has been an issue since a segregation lawsuit was filed against the City of Yonkers in 1980. A federal monitor is still tracking compliance of affordable-housing construction in the county.
In an important 1988 case, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a ruling finding that the Long Island town of Huntington discriminated through restrictive zoning. In that case, the court found that the actions by Huntington to allow apartment buildings only in a predominantly black neighborhood, had a discriminatory impact—as compared with a discriminatory intent
But in Garden City, the ruling found both a discriminatory impact and a discriminatory intent through an “inference of race-based animus.”
Such a finding today is rare, said Erika Poethig, director of Urban Policy Initiatives at the Urban Institute, a research organization in Washington.
Garden City, an incorporated village of 22,000 people, is 90% white, according to U.S. Census data. It has a median income of $143,000 compared with Nassau County’s median income of $96,000 and New York state’s median income of $57,000. By contrast, Hempstead, a neighboring village of 54,000 people, is 46% black, 44% Hispanic and 7% white. Its median income is about $55,000.
Acorn, which disbanded in 2009, was replaced in the lawsuit by the Mutual Housing Association of New York, a nonprofit affordable-housing developer, and New York Communities for Change, a nonprofit organization that advocates for low- and middle-income families. An 11-day trial was held this summer.
Judge Spatt gave the plaintiffs 30 days to come up with a remedial plan to be incorporated into the final judgment in the case, and it gave Garden City 15 days to respond to the plaintiffs’ proposed plan.