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The fairness of NYC housing lotteries will finally get tested in federal court

After eight years of legal push and pull, a major complaint that the city’s practice of giving local residents preference in affordable housing lotteries will get its day in court. Good.

A federal judge last month ruled to let proceed a civil rights lawsuit brought by the Anti-Discrimination Center, which contends that setting aside half the units in city-subsidized housing for those who live near the new developments perpetuates racial and economic divides and effectively punishes low-income, Black and Brown New Yorkers. Rather, they argue, people from anywhere in the city ought to have an equal chance to land an affordable unit whether it’s in Midtown, Hunts Point, Harlem, Astoria or Park Slope.

We understand why politicians and local advocates like community preference. In theory, it helps buy on-the-ground support for new development by reassuring people in changing neighborhoods that they won’t be forced out. (We say in theory, because NIMBYism still reigns supreme in many corners of New York.) The question now is whether in practice, such discrimination on the basis of community district winds up cementing segregation and limiting opportunity. So far, the evidence strongly suggests the answer is yes, and we expect to get more once the city is forced to turn over additional information in legal proceedings.

The plaintiffs in the case are two Black women; the head of the Anti-Discrimination Center, Craig Gurian, says, “If you’re a Black New Yorker applying as an outsider to a white neighborhood, you’re substantially disadvantaged. And by contrast, if you’re a Black New Yorker applying in a Black neighborhood, you get advantaged.” The math of how lotteries work agrees.

The judge has given both sides in the suit a window of time in which to engage in mediation and potentially reach a settlement agreement. That’s unlikely — the city appears hunkered down in its insistence that community preference is essential, and Gurian seems convinced that the only way forward is to end it entirely. So bring on the lawsuit, and may the best argument win.

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