Community Voice: The underlying structural racism behind L.I.’s affordable housing crisis

Laura Harding, president of ERASE Racism.

By Laura Harding

Affordable housing is at a crisis point in New York, and the crisis is even greater on Long Island. Underlying the problem is longstanding structural racism that must be addressed if Long Island is to attract the workforce that it needs for economic success in the 21st century. Needed solutions include responsible development, changes to exclusionary zoning and legalization of accessory dwelling units. A great example of responsible development is the proposed Liberty Gardens in Southampton, and the opposition to it is indicative of the ongoing challenge facing the region.

As the Pew Charitable Trusts report states, “Housing construction in New York City and its suburbs has lagged far behind that of other major cities and their suburbs, resulting in low housing availability and a vacancy rate of just 3%. …. For example, Nassau County and Suffolk County on Long Island permitted just five and three homes per 1,000 residents, respectively, during this period (2017-2021). In contrast, the Boston suburbs of Middlesex County and Norfolk County added 14 and 15 homes, respectively, and the Washington, D.C., suburbs of Arlington County and Loudoun County added 45 and 40 homes per 1,000 residents, respectively.

The lack of housing construction on Long Island has limited development of affordable housing. In addition, attempts to bring equity to affordable housing have been stymied by Long Island residents who, in seeking to preserve the status quo, reinforce the structural racism that has made Long Island one of the most racially segregated suburbs in America. That structural racism reflects the historical and ongoing discriminatory policies and practices, including segregation of Black people and other people of color, that are instigated and perpetuated by government, creating and reinforcing deep racial group inequities across social and economic domains.  

A classic example of preserving the status quo is evident in the fierce opposition – and years-long government review – of the proposed Liberty Gardens affordable housing development in the Town of Southampton. The 50-unit project proposed by the nonprofit Concern Housing would provide affordable workforce housing plus housing for veterans in need of supportive housing. 

Concern Housing has worked with the Town of Southampton, funding sources and the community since early 2018 and has raised $38 million for the project. Yet, the opposition has been relentless. 

As Newsday writes in a recent editorial in support of Liberty Gardens, “Many of those who’ve opposed Liberty Gardens start their speeches, comments and letters by saying they support our veterans. Then, the attacks begin. Our hospitals and first responders could be overwhelmed, they say. Crime could rise. We don’t want housing for those with mental health needs here, they admit.”

The data does not support any of these claims. The opposition, though, continues with its divisive comments. The unfounded fears stoked by opponents perpetuate the longstanding pattern of structural racism and prevent affordable housing for all — even veterans.

It’s especially poignant that opposition to affordable housing for veterans, including veterans of color, continues on Long Island, as Levittown, long considered America’s first suburb, was designed and reserved exclusively for White returning veterans of World War II. Black veterans returning from the same war were specifically excluded. Levittown homes even included racial covenants that prevented White homeowners from reselling their homes to African Americans.

Historical and ongoing structural racism, combined with modern-day exclusionary zoning, using policy to restrict certain land use and housing developments, has not only limited affordable housing but kept lower-income people — disproportionately Black people and other people of color — out of wealthy and middle-class communities. 

That in turn deprives Long Island of the talent and workforce that would otherwise fuel the region’s economy. Long Island will have to decide whether it wants to attract the workers its economy needs in the 21st century or would rather see companies — like so many Long Islanders — leave the area in search of affordable housing. 

In the meantime, the Town of Southampton continues to review the Liberty Gardens project, originally conceived six years ago. The project may seem like an isolated case, but it’s not. It is Long Island’s history being reinforced.

Laura Harding is President of ERASE Racism, the civil rights organization based on Long Island.