Attorney General intervention sought in face of local prosecutor's unwillingness to vindicate decree

August 13, 2014 — More civil rights groups have concluded that enforcement of the landmark housing desegregation court order entered against Westchester County five years ago has been entirely inadequate and are demanding that the Justice Department “alter course and vindicate the integrity of the consent decree.”

The letter to Attorney General Holder (link to full text at bottom of this page) from Long Island-based ERASE Racism, Oakland-based Equal Justice Society, and the Enhanced Section 8 Outreach Program, a housing mobility organization in Westchester, points out that the failure of the office of Preet Bharara, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York to “enforce all the provisions of the consent decree is fostering disrespect for the rule of law and makes clear to other jurisdictions that the Government is not prepared to force structural change even where it has the maximum leverage provided by a court order.”

The letter focuses on the failure of the Government to enforce a series of core provisions of the court order in the face of years of brazen violation by the County, including the failure to enforce Westchester’s obligations under paragraph 7(j) of the order to litigate against those many towns and villages that continue to impose barriers to fair housing choice (most often in the form of unduly restrictive zoning).

“Most troubling,” the letter points out, the U.S. Attorney’s office “has taken the position that it is defendant Westchester, not the Court, that decides whether its most critical obligations have been triggered.”

Craig Gurian, executive director of the Anti-Discrimination Center (ADC), said: “The idea that a defendant gets to decide whether it is under an obligation to act fundamentally undermines civil rights law enforcement. As  we have pointed out to the U.S. Attorney’s office, a defendant cannot avoid a duty by pretending that the conditions giving rise to that duty do not exist.”

Jerrold Levy is General Counsel of a program in Westchester designed to open the doors of housing mobility to families of limited financial means. He has worked in the county for more than two decades.

“This consent decree had the potential to make real progress against the deep residential racial segregation that still characterizes Westchester County,” Levy said. “But I’ve watched for five years as the U.S. Attorney, HUD, and the Monitor have been more interested in pretending that ‘progress’ is being made than in seeing that the central elements of the court order get enforced.”

Elaine Gross, President of ERASE Racism, said: “The Westchester consent decree serves as a model of what affirmatively furthering fair housing should mean in New York. The residents of Westchester deserve the chance to live in affordable multi-family housing located in high opportunity areas. The proper enforcement of the Westchester consent decree would help ensure this basic right.”

“Don’t be fooled by the sideshow being carried on between the county executive and the federal government,” Levy added. “None of those fireworks have anything to do with making the lasting, structural changes that the consent decree had contemplated. On the contrary, when it comes to existing, overwhelmingly white residential neighborhoods, the approach of the Feds has been to go along with Westchester’s don’t-rock-the-boat approach.”

The just-sent letter to the Attorney General follows a June 30th letter from the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and the Poverty and Race Research Action Council to Jim Johnson, the Monitor in the Westchester case, challenging both the rosy view of enforcement efforts peddled to the Court by the U.S. Attorney and the Monitor’s intended method to assess the disparate impact caused by restrictive zoning in Westchester’s towns and villages.

That letter implored the Monitor “to recommend that the Department of Justice and Court take appropriate action to compel the County’s full and immediate compliance with the Consent Decree” (including the mandate of paragraph 7(j)). It also noted that the Monitor’s narrow analysis of disparate impact was “inconsistent with established fair housing law.”

ADC’s Gurian pointed out the Orwellian flavor of the Monitor’s recent biennial report: “Finding the paragraph 7(j) obligations inconvenient, the Monitor has tried to make those obligations disappear. In a report that ran to fully 70 pages, he failed to mention those obligations even once. Likewise, the report did not meet the requirement of paragraph 15 that the Monitor directly answer the question of ‘whether the County has taken all possible actions to meet its obligations…including, but not limited to…promoting inclusionary and other appropriate zoning by municipalities by offering incentives, and, if necessary, taking legal action.’ In short, the Court is getting a lot of paper, but it continues to be deprived of the facts and the law.”