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New York City tops a lot of lists: it is the most populous city in the United States, the most linguistically diverse city in the world, and home to the most billionaires. Known for its diversity, New York City is 32 percent white, 29 percent Latino, 24 percent Black, and 14 percent Asian with hundreds of ethnicities represented among its residents. New York City is also the most segregated metro region in the US.

In some ways, New York City is older than the United States itself. What are now New York City’s notorious boroughs were originally carved out as counties by colonial England after gaining control over the territory from the Dutch, and the existing city of New Amsterdam became New York. Eventually Greater New York City was chartered in 1897 by annexing the boroughs into one city. This consolidated all of the region’s ports and allowed for a streamlined infrastructure that could keep up with the growing population. New York’s slave-trade economy also predates the United States.

When New York was still New Amsterdam, it was a major port for the Dutch West India Company. After the American Revolution, New York’s enslaved laborers made up 20 percent of the population and rivaled southern states. As agriculture’s economic significance waned in early 1800s New York, the state perfunctorily abolished slaveholding. Still, the state relied heavily on exporting goods from the slaveholding south, brokering insurance policies for slaveholders, and continued to participate in the slave trade illegally. New York City’s Black population grew significantly and were derided publicly: “the free negroes of this city are a nuisance incomparably greater than a million slaves.” These early Black New Yorkers were subjected to many of the same ails as Black Americans in other cities during and after the Great Migration.

Black New Yorkers were segregated from schools, cemeteries, and orphanages, and barred from insurance policies among other services. Acquiring land was near impossible, as it was rare for white landowners to sell to Black people. But one landowning family sold about half of their land to Black residents and organizations and by the early 1850s the thriving Black community of Seneca Village held 50 homes, three churches, a school and burial grounds, and was an increasingly popular home to Irish immigrants, too. 

But as lower Manhattan continued to grow more and more overcrowded, the city made plans to create a park to draw residents north. In 1857, the city of New York seized the land of Seneca Village through eminent domain to create New York’s famous Central Park. Though landowners were paid compensation, many took steep losses.

It would not be the last time. Throughout the 20th century, all the players in the housing market, public and private, participated in the active creation and maintenance of residential segregation. Black neighborhoods were redlined, the construction of public housing was avoided in white neighborhoods where resistance was anticipated, and Blacks were prohibited from renting both in large public-supported developments (like Stuyvesant Town) as well as by private landlords. The New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) had a “racial steering component” as part of its tenant assignment policy beginning in 1960. That policy “continued at a few predominantly white projects” even as late as the beginning of 1988. The practice resulted “in a higher proportion of whites than would have resulted from a race neutral admissions policy.”1

Today, New York City’s public school system is considered to be the most segregated in the nation, with many charter and magnet schools as the worst offenders. And while residential segregation is not the sole cause of school segregation, it remains the case that residential segregation is a substantial contributor to school segregation.

In connection with an ongoing Fair Housing Act lawsuit challenging New York City’s “community preference” policy in affordable housing lotteries, it was discovered that the de Blasio administration, even as late as 2017, did not have a plan for ending residential segregation (see citation at page 83 of brief).

The policy creates racially disparate impacts and stymies the integrative moves that New Yorkers want to make. Indeed, of the apparently eligible applications studied as between whites and Blacks, the number of net-integrative moves sought by insiders (the beneficiaries of the policy) was only 5,609; the number of net-integrative moves sought by outsiders (the more racially diverse applicant pool harmed by the policy) was 358,187 (see plaintiffs’ expert’s declaration at Ex. 30, p. 1, ECF 914-9).

The millions of data points analyzed in the case has demonstrated conclusively the willingness of New Yorkers of every race to seek housing outside of their “community districts” (there are 59 of these “CDs” in the city). Approximately 85 percent of unique applicant households apply for housing outside of their CDs at least 75 percent of the time. This is true for all races.

Having an equal-access lottery that honors the choices that applicants make would be the easiest step for New York City to begin to undo its legacy of segregation, yet it has been unwilling to do so. Likewise, most of the rezonings that have taken place in order to facilitate the development of affordable housing have been undertaken in Black and Latino neighborhoods, and no efforts have been made by New York City to try to force its surrounding suburban neighbors to take on a fair share of affordable housing.

  • 1See Davis v. New York City Housing Authority, 278 F.3d 64, 67 (2d Cir. 2002).