Rich Liberal Suburbs Use Invisible ‘Border Wall’ To Keep Out Poor Minorities, Report Finds

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James Lynch Investigative Reporter
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A new think tank report shows how liberal New York suburbs use restrictive zoning laws to drive up housing prices and prevent poor minorities from moving into their neighborhoods.

The Century Foundation released a study about zoning laws and educational opportunities in Scarsdale and Port Chester, liberal suburban areas in Westchester County, New York, located north of New York City. The study compares zoning laws, demographics and public school performance in the neighboring towns as a case study for how liberal suburbs prevent low-income people and racial minorities from moving in.

“Today, among the most important government policies and practices driving segregation include (1) decisions about where to place public housing; and (2) flagrant income discrimination through exclusionary zoning (which disproportionately hurts people of color),” the study reads.

Scarsdale has a median household income of $250,000 and its population is 71.2% white, with 90.7% of adults having attained a bachelor’s degree or more of education, according to data from New York University’s (NYU) Furman Center. Port Chester has an $88,093 median income and its population is 64.2% Hispanic, with 31.1% of adults attaining at least a bachelor’s degree.

Public schools in Scarsdale have higher expenditures per pupil, lower student-to-teacher ratios and more experienced teachers. Students in Scarsdale schools graduate in four years at a higher rate and perform better in English and math than students in Port Chester.

The study explains how Scarsdale fought public housing developments and uses single family zoning to restrict development. As a result, minorities and poor Americans are unable to move to Scarsdale, despite the town’s liberal leanings. In contrast, Port Chester allows for multi-family homes to be built on its land.

“In addition to discriminatory government judgements about where to place public housing, zoning has been a prime driver of residential segregation. Government-sponsored zoning restrictions that forbid multifamily housing, or even single-family homes on modest-sized plots of land, are pervasive in American communities,” the study asserts.

“Recent growth in Scarsdale and Port Chester reflect their very different zoning regimes. In Port Chester, 41 percent of units (24 of 58 units) authorized to be built between 2014 and 2021 were for multifamily housing. In Scarsdale, none (0 of 218 units) were for multifamily homes. Although real estate developers typically make more money building multifamily housing than single-family homes in wealthy areas, Scarsdale essentially forbids it,” the study adds.

Scarsdale’s median single family housing price is $1.65 million and all of its new units from 2014-21 were single family homes. Port Chester’s median single-family housing price is $592,242 and 59% of its new units were built for single families. A majority of Port Chester’s housing is occupied by renters and its population density is much higher than Scarsdale, according to NYU Furman Center data.

Scarsdale and Port Chester are located in New York’s 16th Congressional district, represented by Democratic New York Rep. Jamaal Bowman, an outspoken progressive with ties to the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). President Joe Biden won Westchester County in the 2020 presidential election, with 67% of the vote.

Left-wing policy analyst Richard Kahlenberg used the study’s results to describe how liberal suburbs “have their own border wall” in an article for the Atlantic, a liberal magazine.

“One can safely presume that few Scarsdale residents are ardent backers of Trump’s wall on the Mexican border. But many of them support a less visible kind of wall, erected by zoning regulations that ban multifamily housing and keep non-wealthy people, many of them people of color, out of their community.”