A fight over potential Hasidic residents in a proposed new suburban subdivision outside New York City

Residents and local officials in the New York City suburb of Chester have concerns about who might move into a proposed development:

In a peaceful corner of the Hudson Valley, a broad expanse of land sits at the ready for hundreds of homes ranging between 2,500 and 3,400 square feet, with views of the surrounding hills. There will be a recreation center and tennis courts, and nearly half of the development’s 117 acres will be kept as open space.

But if it were up to town officials, the houses would never be built. They openly fret about the size and density of the 431-unit development, the Greens at Chester, and even confess wariness about the likely intended home buyers: Hasidic Jews…

Angry residents at the meeting talked of how school taxes could rise, and public resources could be stretched in the town, about 60 miles north of New York City. They spoke of fears that the development would one day resemble Kiryas Joel, a Hasidic village about nine miles away that is overcrowded and has ranked among the poorest communities in the nation.

The developers, Greens at Chester, L.L.C., cite these statements and others in a federal lawsuit that accuses the town, Orange County and individual local officials of discrimination, contending that they assume that the home buyers will be Hasidic because some of the developers are.

The concerns expressed by residents and public officials are common ones levied at sizable new subdivisions: more strain on public services (though developed property could bring in more money through property taxes and money could be spent in the community) and a change in the community’s character. Even though growth is generally good in American communities, many places want to restrict what kind of growth is possible (and who new residents are).

What makes this more unique is the expressed concern about who exactly might move into these new suburban homes. Concern about suburban residents about the movement of Hasidic Jews in the New York City region is an ongoing one. Because they tend to move in sizable numbers together to particular locations, suburban residents feel they can be overwhelmed by a local change in population and lifestyle. This is not a new issue in suburbs in the New York City region. As Hasidic Jews have looked for housing and communities in which they can live, they have encountered opposition from at least a few suburbs concerning where they wish to worship.

Because local officials and residents have been so open about their opposition to a particular group moving in, I imagine this will not end well for the community. If the lawsuit does not side in favor of the plantiffs, this suburb will join others in having a reputation of not wanting certain kinds of residents. Many suburbs do this through a variety of methods but do so without explicitly naming who they are referring to (think of efforts to limit the number of poorer residents or minority residents). The residents and leaders of Chester may want to preserve some type of character of the community but doing so at the cost of naming and excluding specific residents is a dubious strategy.

Publication in Soc Quarterly: “Would Prefer a Trailer Park to a Large [Religious] Building”

The quote in the title for my newest article just published in The Sociological Quarterly comes from a comment made at a 2011 public hearing in the Chicago suburbs involving a proposal from a Muslim group to buy land. At face value, the claim is preposterous: what suburbanite living in a well-off suburb would want to live next to a trailer park?

My study titled ““Would Prefer a Trailer Park to a Large [Religious] Building”: Suburban Responses to Proposals for Religious Buildings” looks at what factors lead to more opposition from neighbors and local leaders when religious groups look to buy land, construct a building, or renovate/use an existing building. Is it related to the size of proposed building, the setting for the building, or the group making the request (thinking of multiple cases of Muslim groups facing opposition in the Chicago suburbs – see examples here, here, here, and here)?

The abstract to the study:

To worship in the suburbs, religious congregations often have to apply to local  governments for zoning and building approval. Examining 40 proposals from religious groups in three Chicago suburbs between January 2010 and December 2014 shows that local governments approved the majority of requests. For the proposals that received more negative attention or “no” votes from government bodies, opposition was related to locations adjacent to residences, experiences with one local government, and requests from Muslim groups. These findings have implications for how suburbs address pluralism and new development as the application of zoning guidelines can make it more difficult for religious groups, particularly ones involving immigrants or racial/ethnic minorities, to find and establish a permanent presence in suburban communities.

In sum, religious groups in the United States can theoretically worship in many places – until a local government suggests otherwise, often due to zoning concerns. Religious groups can counter with the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) but lawsuits require time and effort and can hinder positive community relations.

Fighting discrimination in online housing ads

The Department of Housing and Urban Development and the ACLU are going after discriminatory online housing listings:

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development filed charges against social media giant Facebook on Thursday, alleging that its advertising platform violates the Fair Housing Act by allowing lenders and realtors to target Facebook users on the basis of race, gender, religion, familial status, disability, and national origin.

“Facebook is discriminating against people based upon who they are and where they live,” said HUD Secretary Ben Carson in a statement. “Using a computer to limit a person’s housing choices can be just as discriminatory as slamming a door in someone’s face.”

According to Axios, HUD and Facebook were close to a settlement. Citing anonymous sources, the Axios report says the decision to file charges could be motivated by a desire to appear on the offensive on housing discrimination prior to Carson’s meetings with lawmakers on Capitol Hill next week.

The charges are somewhat surprising as Facebook just settled five similar cases with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) last week. Under the settlement, the company agreed to create a separate advertising portal for real estate listings where advertisers’ options for targeting are limited. Facebook also settled a housing discrimination case with the state of Washington last summer.

The features that make online advertising so attractive – the ability to target particular consumers rather than addressing larger populations – do not work so well in the real estate field where housing is supposed to be available to all.

This reminds me of the conclusion of American Apartheid where the sociologists suggest the necessary rules are in place to combat housing issues but the political will is lacking. If the online realm is now indeed where a lot of housing is rented or sold, then discrimination in online listings needs to be addressed when it does occur.

Add these online occurrences to the ongoing findings of audit tests suggesting differential treatment and there is likely plenty of housing discrimination still to battle. While the 1968 Housing Act banned discrimination on the basis of “refusal to sell or rent a dwelling to any person because of his race, color, religion, or national origin,” many American communities – including the suburbs on the basis of race and class – are what they are today because of exclusion.

Suing for more suburban housing

A California law makes it possible to sue communities regarding housing:

Pro-housing activist Sonja Trauss, a pioneer in the YIMBY movement, was reading about a controversial 315-unit affordable apartment project in Lafayette in 2015 when she learned about a 1982 state law she’d never heard of before: the Housing Accountability Act.

The law said municipalities must approve a housing development as long as it is consistent with local zoning rules and general plan objectives, would not create a public health hazard or take water from neighboring farms, and would meet state environmental standards…

The California Renters Legal Advocacy Fund, or CaRLA — a group Trauss and her YIMBY allies formed in 2015 — is waging the sue-the-suburbs campaign. CaRLA has used the Housing Accountability Act to sue on behalf of developers in Sausalito, Berkeley, San Mateo, Sonoma, Dublin and Lafayette…

While the lawsuits will eventually result in some increase in the Bay Area’s housing stock — none of the projects in question have opened yet — the bigger impact so far has been to make municipal officials aware that violations of the Housing Accountability Act could result in expensive litigation.

How long until California changes the law to give communities more say over these matters? Not surprisingly, the end of the article mentions a counter group that a co-founder says is “not NIMBYs or anti-housing; for us the issue goes back to democracy and local control.” Suburbanites do like their local control.

This certainly would not be the first time the courts have been used to allow new housing construction in wealthier suburbs. It may be the only way to force compliance from suburbs that would rather not have cheaper housing and different kinds of residents. Unfortunately, it can be a very slow process within specific cases and overall progress is limited. Perhaps the threat of lawsuits and several successful cases in the past could force suburbs to move more quickly but I would guess some would still aim to drag out the process as much as possible.

Final thought: it would be interesting to track what happens to these developments allowed by the courts over time. Do communities eventually accept the housing units and residents? Would a positive response to a new development than encourage the community to pursue other similar developments? Or, does a court victory lead to hardened resistance?

How postwar DuPage County used zoning to limit poorer and non-white residents

I was recently reading the 1976 political science book Poliscide and part of Chapter 8 on the postwar zoning practices of DuPage County caught my attention:

Although no county can place guards at the county line to inspect the socioeconomic and racial characteristics of newcomers, such powers as zoning and control over subdivision and building codes make the county a highly effective arbiter of the types of structures to be built and, hence, the final arbiter of the types of people who will live in its jurisdiction.

For example, DuPage County enacts a subdivision ordinance requiring a developer to retain a large portion of his prospective subdivision for public facilities such as parks and schools; the county combines this with a zoning ordinance requiring single-family dwellings and a large minimum lot size. This effectively prohibits a developer from profitably building anything but high-cost housing not accessible to lower-income persons.

Stringent county building code standards, requiring expensive building materials and high-quality plumbing, wiring, and heating systems, also serve to increase housing costs. The county’s industrial zoning policy restricting heavy industry serves to limit job opportunity for lower-income persons and to prevent a decline in residential property values surrounding an industrial development – which might create housing opportunities for lower-income groups. Moreover, the county’s relations with various financial institutions make it difficult for a developer to secure financing for a project not approved by the county. Indeed, because of the obstacles the county is capable of placing in the path of a developer, the county’s objection may be sufficient to convince a financial institution that investment in a project would be unwise.

The county’s relations with other units of government give it yet another means of influencing the course of residential and industrial development. It is not, for example, an uncommon practice in Illinois for the county forest preserve district to condemn, at the count government’s behest, land on which an unwelcome development is planned…. And courts have made it a point not to intervene. If the acquisition was for a “public purpose,” there is no inclination to examine the underlying motives. (179-180)

And, as the political scientists point out, these were all legal procedures. Local governments, whether at the municipality, township, or county level, often have the power to dictate what can be built on the land over which they have jurisdiction.

At the same time, there have been court cases seeking to reverse these zoning powers. In 1971, DuPage County residents and a local fair-housing group brought suit against the county for exclusionary zoning practices. The Mount Laurel cases in New Jersey led to famous decisions suggesting municipalities cannot completely restrict cheaper housing (even if implementation has been messy).

More broadly, Sonia Hirt argues zoning in the United States serves one primary purpose: single-family homes. When wealthier suburbanites or urban dwellers get the opportunity to live in the homes they want or ones that have plenty of desirable traits, they tend to resist efforts to include cheaper housing nearby. (For a more recent urban case, see Portland.)

To some degree, the plan worked for a while in DuPage County. The authors of Poliscide say the county was the 3rd wealthiest in the nation, businesses were growing, and much of the development was relatively high-end. Yet, things changed over time. In the 2010 Census, DuPage County was the 62nd wealthiest county in the United States. (It would be interesting to analyze what role zoning played in vaulting all those other counties above DuPage County.) In the same census, the white along population was just over 70%. Some of this might be due to how the authors of Poliscide suggest municipalities fought back against the county: they moved to incorporate themselves as well as annex land so that they took over jurisdiction of land and DuPage County had less control over new development.

Ongoing fights over zoning for religious buildings

The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) was passed in 2000 and still there are numerous local battles between local governments and religious groups who want to use or build a structure for religious purposes:

By the time they take on a zoning challenge, many religious groups are already struggling to find and retain members, and to get by on shoestring budgets. Without an adequate place to gather, they miss opportunities to assemble in study, service, and prayer. The stakes are high for towns, too. Churches, synagogues, and mosques influence life well outside their walls: People who belong to religious institutions are more civically engaged than their secular neighbors. They are more likely to serve on school boards, volunteer at charities, and join clubs. In the absence of these institutions, communities can become fractured and isolated. Neighborly infrastructure decays…

Many of the groups that wind up at the center of RLUIPA cases have it worse than North Jersey Vineyard. Cases can stretch on for decades, and the majority of religious organizations end up losing: According to Dalton, who wrote a book on RLUIPA, roughly 80 percent of RLUIPA claims filed in federal court fail. “This is a very hard statute to follow,” he said. “For the inexperienced, it is easy to lose.” An untold number of religious groups never make it to court at all, either because congregations don’t realize they have special protections under the law, don’t know how to file a claim, or don’t have the resources to pursue a case. Many simply walk away from purchasing a property when they discover that it is not zoned for religious use.

North Jersey Vineyard was also spared the ugly bigotry underlying many zoning disputes. Other than a few awkward comments confusing Catholic and Protestant styles of worship, officials in South Hackensack didn’t seem to oppose North Jersey Vineyard’s purchase based on the congregants’ faith. Often, though, zoning books are wielded by intolerant or ignorant officials; about half of RLUIPA disputes involve religious or ethnic minorities, according to Dalton. As a participant in a Department of Justice listening session recently told government officials, “People don’t come into hearings now and say, ‘I hate Muslims.’ They say, ‘The traffic is going to be terrible on [Fridays,]’” when Muslims gather for Jumah prayer…
This is where the practicalities of land-use law shade into something more philosophical: Where is the line between preserving a community’s character and preventing its evolution? While it’s easy to sympathize with a church that can’t find a space in which to pray, it’s also easy to imagine aggrieved residents sitting in Sunday-morning traffic or searching in vain for parking near their house.

My own take on this is similar: it is not as simple as saying that most communities dislike certain religious groups (though some requests certainly gain more attention – I’ve seen more cases in the last ten years or so involving Muslims and orthodox Jews) as many times the concerns raised by local residents and governments are similar to those raised for any development project. The difference is here that religious groups have certain legal options open to them that are not available to non-religious development projects.

Five unusual lawsuits between neighbors over smells

Neighbors can fight over many things with numerous examples involving McMansions noted on this blog (see here and here for two cases). How about squabbling over smells? Here are five interesting cases with two examples excerpted below:

In 2001 David and Joan Gallant bought their house outside Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada, from Lee and Shirley Murray, whose farm abuts the Gallants’ property on three sides. For years, the two couples appear to have coexisted peacefully, but relations soured for unnamed reasons toward the end of the decade. In 2013 the Murrays erected an unusual barrier on their property line near the Gallants’ house: a massive, reeking pile of cow dung so large it could be seen on Google Earth.

“The manure was fresh, unseasoned, wet, [and] raw,” David Gallant said in his affidavit. In 2015, the Gallants sued the Murrays, and were awarded $11,300 USD in damages…

In Singapore, a newly-arrived Chinese family living in an apartment next to a Singaporean Indian family could not abide their neighbors’ cooking smells—particularly curry dishes. The Indian family agreed to shut their doors and windows when they cooked curry, but they balked when the Chinese family subsequently asked them to stop cooking it altogether.

A government mediator helped them come to an agreement: The Indian family would cook curry only when the Chinese family was out, and the Chinese family would try a curry dish. The case caused an uproar in the Southeast Asian city-state, with many Singaporeans declaring that the agreement treated the Indian family unfairly and that the Chinese family should learn to tolerate Indian Singaporean cooking. A nationwide curry movement erupted, including a “Cook and Share a Pot of Curry” campaign and an annual weeklong series of curry-themed events.

I am now trying to imagine a case that includes the odd combination of a smelly McMansion…

Seriously, though, smells can have a large effect on quality of life. Few people want to live near a landfill or certain industrial properties. I would guess that most suburban communities don’t have a distinctive positive or negative smell outside of their regional distinctions (such as being close to the ocean or the mountains, as two examples). Perhaps this is like having a generic American accent that makes it difficult to know where someone is from – suburbs everywhere have a faint smell of lawns.

Smells can also cross property lines or units within the same property in unique ways. Indeed, you might not even notice anything until the smell is overwhelming. It can be difficult to trace the source. It may not be present at all times (in the cases above, the manure wasn’t going anywhere while a cooking smell can come and go).

Would such lawsuits involve air rights? What expectations should the average resident have that they can control the smells in their space?