70 Years Ago NYC Passed a Bill Prohibiting Race-Based Housing Discrimination. What Was its Impact?

On February 16, 1951, the New York City Council passed a bill prohibiting racial discrimination in city-assisted housing developments. As the most populated city in America with an estimated 18,804,000 residents, NYC is often looked at as the model for diversity as it is home to members of practically every ethnic group of U.S. citizenry.

But despite the mosaic of cultures and racial identities that call the “Big Apple” home, it has remained one of the most segregated cities in the world. The five-borough metropolis is comprised of whole neighborhoods that are often inhabited by a single ethnic group. The placement of where residents live in the city is not at all coincidental, rather the result of decades of redlining, gentrification and discriminatory housing practices.

Last summer NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration released a report titled “Where We Live” aimed at addressing the impact of decades of discriminatory housing policies and practices. Through community conversations, data analysis, government partnerships and other measures, the study sought to “better understand how fair housing challenges like segregation, discrimination, and lack of access to thriving neighborhoods affect New Yorkers and how the City can eliminate barriers that impede fair housing.”

The “Where We Live” report was inspired by the Obama-led federal government’s interest in reinforcing the guidelines of the Fair Housing Act of 1968 and highlighted the very specific ways that race and income exacerbated the inequities of the living conditions of various New Yorkers.

For example, according to the report, Black and Hispanic households experienced lower quality housing conditions and were 20 percent more likely to experience maintenance problems like lack of heat, peeling paint, or the presence of rodents compared with only 6 percent of their Asian and White counterparts.

It also factored in quality-of-life indexes such as education: (Department of Education’s 2017-2018 numbers, 13 percent of Hispanic and Black students experience unstable housing when compared with 5 percent of the Asian student population and 3 percent of White students.)

and crime (Black residents experienced the highest exposure to violent crime in the neighborhoods where they live (6.0 per 1,000 people), a rate twice that of White New Yorkers (2.6 per 1000 people) and Asian/PI New Yorkers (3.0 per 1000 people).

The data presented in the study presents the opportunity for a very serious query of the housing discrimination bill of 1951: if the intent of the bill passed 70 years ago was to eliminate segregation in private housing, but the conditions of majority-minority housing have consistently remained inequitable, then what was the city council attempting to really accomplish seven decades ago other than going on record publicly as a city that condoned discrimination?

Amid a once-in-a-generation pandemic and a record-setting freezing winter, equitable living conditions must amount to more than just banishing race-based housing covenants. If the “Big Apple” is to provide housing sustenance to all of its citizens, its elected officials have to move beyond merely stating the obvious, and do the work of balancing the scales.

Start spreading that news…

About the Author

Donney Rose is a poet, essayist, Kennedy Center Citizen Artist Fellow, advocate, and Chief Content Editor at The North Star. He believes in telling how it is and how it should be.