Monday, August 31, 2009

Nine Towns Revisited

This was written for use as an OpEd piece

Some affordable housing for moderate-income people may be built in suburban Westchester County towns one of these days soon. The courts have ruled that the county “misrepresented” the facts when they asserted they had made a good faith effort to desegregate their lily-white suburbs.

It’s not a done deal. The county’s Board of Legislators must still approve the agreement. Faced with the prospect of further expensive litigation and penalties, they’ll probably go along. But even if they do, it is possible that local town and village authorities will battle to reinforce the status quo, as they’ve successfully done for decades.

All this has a familiar ring.

In 1968, Ed Logue was brought in by Gov. Nelson Rockefeller to run the Urban Development Corporation, a powerful new state agency created in the wake of Martin Luther King’s death. The agency was controversial because it had the power to get things done in the face of local resistance. Logue was controversial because he was a no-nonsense administrator with a track record in New Haven and Boston. I went to work as Logue’s Executive Assistant at UDC in 1969.

In his day Logue took a lot of heat because of his style. Since his death in 2000 he has been recognized as a visionary who was honest, effective, and committed to the public good. He saw the absence of affordable housing in places like suburban Westchester as an affront to decency and common sense. Low and moderate-income people of whatever race or ethnicity should have the right and opportunity to live in Westchester County.

So in 1972, “Fair Share,” which became known as the Nine Towns Program, was born. It wasn’t a complicated concept. 100 low-rise units of housing would be built in each of nine Westchester towns. 70 would be for moderate-income residents of the town. 20 would be for low-income residents of the town. 10 would be for low-income elderly.

When Nine Towns was announced a firestorm erupted. Logue wasn’t naïve enough to think there wouldn’t be opposition. But the breadth and depth of the uproar shocked him. Local and state elected officials ran for cover. Established community groups ranted. New community groups formed to battle this attempt by big government to ruin the quality of their lives raved. The media feasted on juicy negative headlines. Nine Towns had supporters, but their voices were drowned out by the noise. Logue wasn’t happy with how our local staff was managing the program and sent me up to take charge of it.

To be sure, we made mistakes. Some potential sites weren’t analyzed exhaustively, which allowed opponents to seize on technical or other issues to bolster their case. Everything was fair game: traffic, drainage, public transportation, a fair price for the land, impact on the school system, and more. In some cases local officials weren’t consulted in a timely manner.

But all that was only a useful smokescreen. The real problem was that middle-class white people, many of whom had only recently ‘escaped’ from the city felt threatened. We didn’t hear much from the Westchester gentry. They weren’t at risk.

We had public hearings in Bedford and Greenburgh. Those hearings make today’s health care town hall meetings look like sedate Scarsdale tea parties. On September 6, 1972, more than 400 people jammed into the auditorium of the Bedford Hills Elementary School. Threats were made. The local police suggested we wear bulletproof vests. We declined.

It was bedlam in Bedford that night. For more than four hours we tried to conduct a civil discourse over the top of heckling, shouting, loud interruptions, foot-stomping, whistling, name-calling. The massacre of Israeli athletes by terrorists at the Munich Olympic Games was fresh in everyone’s minds. At one point a Nine Towns supporter accused the local people of being like the terrorists. A middle-aged man jumped on a chair and yelled, “How can you say that? I’m a Jew. I’m a Jew.” That was when the near-riotous disorder reached its peak, and the police almost shut us down.

The handwriting was on the wall for Nine Towns. It was no longer about housing. It was about politics. As the year headed to a close, the political opposition was overwhelming and unyielding. In the end the Governor disowned the proposal. In the next session of the legislature UDC was stripped of its power to override local opposition.

We wanted to build 900 units of housing and allocate it to current residents of the towns. 700 units would be for moderate-income people. The current agreement in Westchester calls for building or acquiring 750 homes or apartments, 630 of which must be for moderate-income people in towns or villages where black and Hispanic residents constitute a small percentage of the population.

Nine Towns was 37 years ago. As I said, all this has a familiar ring. I hope the results will be different this time around.


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