Staten Island Downzoning Bid Violates Fair Housing Act
Home builders in Staten Island, N.Y. have made it clear that recent downzoning proposals there may violate the Fair Housing Act. As a result, local officials have begun to reconsider the use of downzoning as a means of maintaining exclusive communities and have taken the recent downzoning proposals off the calendar.
Staten Island has been growing faster than New York City itself over the last 15 years. In response to that growth, some Staten Island officials have sought to downzone certain areas. But downzoning makes it increasingly difficult for builders to provide housing that is affordable to low- and moderate-income families, including many minority families.
R. Randy Lee, a builder-developer from Staten Island and board chairman of the Building Industry Association of New York City (BIA), led the industry effort in opposition to the downzoning proposals, which would have an unfair impact on New York’s minorities and would disproportionately reduce the availability of affordable housing for them, in violation of the federal Fair Housing Act.
“Regardless of their intent," said Lee, " these downzonings are a violation of the Fair Housing Act because they interfere with the efforts of those who seek to provide housing that is affordable to minority families.” Lee said he views the Fair Housing Act as a viable tool in preventing improper zoning changes that have a disproportionate impact on minorities across the nation.
Councilman Andrew J. Lanza proposed the downzoning to prevent higher-density development in seven different sections of southern Staten Island. Currently, 68% of the residents of Staten Island are white, 14% Hispanic and 10% black. However, nearly 90% of the residents of three of the southernmost communities included in the proposed downzoning are white.
The city planning commission planned to certify one of the seven proposals for rezoning this summer. The downzoning in Prince’s Bay would result in a reduction of overall density by increasing lot sizes and restricting development of new homes to single-family units, eliminating two-family residences where the second unit could be used for rental income. Councilman Lanza has withdrawn his proposal.
Withdrawal of the proposal is an important step in preventing violations of the Fair Housing Act, Lee said. “This downzoning of Prince’s Bay will bring an increase in house prices and reduce rental units, pushing them beyond the means of more low- and moderate-income families. Because minority families are more likely to have low or moderate incomes, the net effect is that minority families are excluded from places where downzoning is applied,” Lee said.
Building industry experts conducted an analysis of the impact of the zoning changes and additional proposals that were pending to determine whether they would have a disproportionate impact on the ability of minorities to access housing. It was determined that the proposed downzoning would reduce the number of white-occupied homes by 49.4%, black-occupied homes by 88% and Hispanic-occupied homes by 71%.
Such significant reductions in housing opportunities for minorities to purchase or rent homes in the southern portion of Staten Island establishes that the proposed downzoning violates the Fair Housing Act.
Although the intent of the downzoning was apparently to control the pace and quality of construction on the island, the proposals were not the least discriminatory means of achieving this goal, which is what made them unlawful.
Lee said “that even good-intentioned acts can lead to bad results, which is the case here.” Previous recommendations by the Staten Island Growth Management Task Force resulted in large density reductions on Staten Island, and Lee said that these provided adequate safeguards against overcrowding.
“Ideally, Staten Island will offer a range of house types and prices to meet the needs of families across the economic spectrum,” Lee said. “Builders and developers want to work with local government to design and build attractive neighborhoods that offer a strong sense of community. And a great neighborhood does not have to be an exclusive neighborhood,” he said.