A column by Alexander Roberts in Westchester County Business Journal.

I recently attended a breakfast by the Westchester County Association featuring Michael Kaplowitz, chairman of the county Board of Legislators. He is rightly praised for restoring a sense of comity and bipartisanship to county government. But asked about the growing housing burden on county citizens and failure of the county to meet the need for affordable housing, he noted that New York is a home-rule state, granting zoning powers to the municipalities with which he had no desire to interfere.

A few months ago, I had a conversation with a county housing employee who used another line of reasoning to oppose the federal consent decree requiring the county to build 750 units of affordable housing. The federal court ordered the housing to be built in 31 of the county’s municipalities that are less than 3 percent black and 7 percent Hispanic. The county employee used a car analogy to advance his argument.

“My car broke down last week and I have to get a new one,” he said.

“But I can’t afford a BMW so I have to buy a cheaper car. If I can’t afford a house in Rye, then I have to buy in Port Chester or Yonkers. That’s America.”

On its face the argument seems reasonable and consistent with market economics. Why should the government — especially the federal government — force BMW, or Rye, to build a cheaper product, especially when New York is a home-rule state where municipalities have control over local zoning? But that’s exactly where the argument breaks down.

Zoning is a political, and not an economic, act. In a free market, the market determines what is built based upon consumer demand. In Rye, you can only afford to buy a BMW-level house because land use is pretty much limited to single-family houses. If Rye zoned an acre for 30 apartments, you can bet the farm they would be built. These Westchester communities, however, have planning and zoning boards with the police power to exclude anything but 3,000-square-foot houses on one acre, and they do. That is the problem.

The market demand today is for rental apartments. Zoning policy in many of the overwhelmingly white areas prohibits affordable rental housing, leading to what housing experts call “exclusionary “ or “snob zoning.” This is illegal in nearby states — New Jersey, Connecticut and Massachusetts — which unlike New York have state laws promoting affordable housing.

Westchester municipalities not only discriminate against lower-income working people when they eliminate apartments, their zoning has what these experts also call a “disparate impact” on minorities, whose median incomes are about half that of whites. In reality, just over half of all of the affordable units produced by the consent decree are going to whites — less than a third to blacks and the rest to Hispanics.

Continue reading in the Westchester County Business Journal | Westfair Online.