When Do 'Preferences' for Housing Programs Amount to Discrimination?

Many communities have affordable housing programs designed especially for older people on fixed incomes.

The idea is to allow them to maintain a good quality of life in a safe, welcoming environment.

Discrimination underlined with red marker
Ivelin Radkov

But what if you have to be a resident of the community to qualify for affordable housing - and the community happens to be 85 percent white? Does that amount to discrimination based on race?

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Yes, the U.S. Justice Department argues in a suit against the town of Oyster Bay, N.Y., a predominantly white community on Long Island. Prosecutors say that Oyster Bay's Golden Age Housing Program and another program aimed at first-time home buyers violate the federal Fair Housing Act because residents of the town are given a preference in the selection process. African American households account for only 1 percent of those eligible for the two programs, the suit alleges.

"Housing programs designed to help young families and senior citizens purchase homes should be available to people of all races, including African Americans," U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch said in a statement. "To the extent residency preferences prevent families and senior citizens from purchasing homes because of race, ethnicity or color, the preferences violate federal law and cannot be tolerated."

The town reportedly hired lawyers last year to handle the case. "It is just plain wrong to suggest that the town of Oyster Bay is anything but a welcoming community to all people regardless of race," Town Supervisor John Venditto, who was also named in the federal government's lawsuit, said in a statement.

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What's the bottom line? Jocelyn Samuels, the acting attorney general for civil rights, puts it this way: "If municipalities wish to adopt residency preferences such as those imposed by the defendants, they must do so in a way that does not discriminate against people based on race."

Photo: IvelinRadkov (iStockphoto)


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