Unitarian Universalist Society of the South Shore
October 1, 2023
My name is Ian Wilder. I am Executive Director of Long Island Housing Services, Inc. We are an over half-century-old civil rights organization focused on fair housing, that is overcoming housing discrimination.
I want to thank Karen [Finkenberg] for inviting me. She has been a long-time family friend. I appreciate her giving me a chance to address you today.
I should tell you that I feel at home here. At least 2 of our prior Executive Directors are members of UU congregations. And though I am not, I have attended innumerable events at various UU buildings across the Island, including this one.
I have a particularly close association with this building. At one point in my life, I was performing spoken word with a local jam band who regularly put on shows in this venue. A tape of one of those shows lives on YouTube. Unfortunately, the rock opera that we staged does not.
Returning to Long Island Housing Services, we have been recognized by Long Island Press in 2023 as a “Real Estate Player” and for the last three years [2022, 2021, & 2020] by City & State magazine as a “Long Island Power 100.”
Why Reflections from a White Male?
I choose the reading today* because it reflects the two themes that I hope to expand on today:
The reading is purposefully from a White Male. It is not the duty of the group being oppressed to fight against their oppression, it is the duty of the members of the group causing oppression. As a white male with unearned privilege, I have duty to spend that privilege in furtherance of changing the system to create equality for all.
Similarly, Pete Seeger is known for popularizing [the hymn I chose] “We shall overcome” a song about collective action.
My discussion today is titled “20 Ways to fight housing discrimination” it is based on a talk that I gave for the Hempstead and Uniondale Land Trusts, which I later turned into a Law Review article.
Speak the words
I want to start off with a story. I attended an event for work. The evening turned to a discussion about housing, and it centered around the Governor’s Housing Compact proposal.
I mentioned to an elected official at the event that since his area received HUD funds they had a duty to Affirmatively Further Housing under the 1968 Fair Housing Act. That duty includes taking action to overcome systems that keep segregation in place and continue housing discrimination.
An example that I gave him was that zoning was created historically to reinforce segregation. The exclusionary pattern put in place by zoning schemes have never been undone. I suggested to this elected official that his area has a duty to overcome that effect of zoning.
When I was done, someone else in the group spoke up. He basically said that I may be correct that zoning was historically created in order to further segregation, but it was wrong that the people in New York City said that everyone who opposed the Governor’s Housing compact are racist.
I was disappointed by this comment for a number of reasons. It seemed to make it seem that I said things that I didn’t, but that is to be expected any time racism is surfaced.
I was more disappointed that this comment came from a well-educated white male who has a platform to make change on Long Island. Though it was not said directly, the comments implied that systemic racism is a thing of the past.
I feel relatively safe saying at a UU gathering that we all know that systemic racism continues to this day.
I heard a Rabbi at a High Holiday Service at George Washington University say that even if you do not consider yourself religious that you are probably following many Jewish laws. The same could probably be said for those in this congregation fighting discrimination. If you are a good ally to someone who feels they have been discriminated against, then you are in the fight. Of course, I would recommend that you support that friend in contacting an agency like mine to bring us their complaint. We will help determine if we believe a complaint can be filed.
How to prove discrimination
You may have noticed that I said someone feels that they are discriminated against. That is because it is often hard for an individual to know for sure. For instance, racial discrimination is most often not explicit. A housing provider rarely says, “I won’t rent to you or sell you this house because you belong to X group.”
It is more likely that the person will suffer a difference in treatment. They will be steered to neighborhoods where everyone already looks like them. They will be told nothing is available or given a non-working telephone number to call.
Without seeing how other people were treated, an individual cannot say for sure that they were discriminated against. That is where agencies like mine come in. And where you can come in.
We can do investigation and testing to determine if there is a difference in treatment. And sadly, we do find it. To be clear we send out one tester belonging to the protected class that might have been discriminated against. And a comparison tester who does not. They have a similar economic profile that they are presenting. The only difference is in one personal demographic that should be meaningless in a real estate transaction.
Nothing else. We just compare how people are treated when seeking a home.
And that is where you can come in.
We always need more testers of every demographic for protected class and comparison testers.
And I want to be clear that everyone is in multiple protected classes. Some could potentially discriminate against me based on race because I am White or gender because I am male, though both are unlikely. And because I am Jewish, married, and a father. Fair Housing law protects everyone.
What you get on our email list
I would also recommend joining our email list to stay up-to-date on your community and what timely actions that you can take. We send our announcements of our settlements of fair housing complaints which allows you to see what kind of discrimination is prevalent in our communities.
You would see that an exception to my comment previously that most discrimination is not explicit is in the area of source of income discrimination. Despite it being outlawed about a decade ago in both counties, and since 2019 across New York State, we are still seeing a large number of Source of Income cases. And they are not about difference of treatment. They are explicit. “We do not take programs.” “We do not take vouchers.” And we are not just talking about Housing Choice Vouchers (commonly called Section 8). We are talking about vouchers for person with traumatic brain injuries or transferring out of nursing homes.
In addition, you will be updated on our fair housing trainings on Zoom for the public. Our next one is November 15, 2023. [Our next trainings will be in 2024.]
Why good things fail to happen
You will also be updated on actions that you could take. Governor Hochul’s Housing Compact would have been the first attempt to take on historic exclusionary zoning in New York State. It was insufficient of affordable housing and fair housing for where we need to be, but it would have finally starting us down the road that we need to travel. It failed not because of the opposition by conservatives, but because of lack of support by those on the left.
I talked to the Chief of Staff for a progressive Assembly person. They told me that 100%, 100%, of the calls that they got about the plan were in opposition. In the tight election space we are in Long Island, they felt it would be fruitless to come out for a plan that had zero support. If we had been able to rally support, we might have gotten it passed.
Please feel free to reach out to me at ian@LIFairHousing.org if anything I said has interested you, whether it is exploring becoming a tester or just getting on our email list.
Our email list only sends out one, maybe two, emails a week. If you want to dive deep, though, you can follow us on Twitter/X, Facebook, or LinkedIn. On Twitter and Facebook, we are @LIFairHousing. Those feeds have one, maybe 2 posts, per day on the two topic areas of housing and civil rights.
Work for the Thunder and Lightning
I want to stop for a minute and revisit several of the fair housing laws that I mentioned. In order to set the scene, I would like to quote Frederick Douglass:
Let me give you a word of the philosophy of reform. The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims have been born of earnest struggle. The conflict has been exciting, agitating, all-absorbing, and for the time being, putting all other tumults to silence. It must do this or it does nothing. If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.
This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.
The Fair Housing Act was long delayed. It was passed years after the other Civil Rights. it was not passed out of love, but out of fear. It finally overcame the racist objections in Congress in an attempt to quell the anger over the assassination of Dr. King.
Though less painful, the passing of the county and state Source of Income laws still required active coalitions to actively lobby and advocate for them getting passed.
Even that work is hardly done. Vouchers are a conservative method of funding housing. With the end of World War II, the federal government got out of building middle class and affordable housing for everyone and switched to financing single family homes for middle class white families while only funding a limited number of vouchers for everyone else.
But those conservative methods of providing housing require the market to comply with taking the vouchers. Unfortunately, the market is embedded with systemic racism so many vouchers (our tax dollars) go to waste because landlords refuse to take the vouchers. So this conservative method of funding fails to provide housing.
As national program, it needs a national fix. We need source of income discrimination to be a protected class nationally under the Fair Housing Act to fix this problem. Representative Maxine Waters has tempted to do that, and to open up the voucher programs so that everyone who needs one can get one instead of having years-long waiting lists.
It will take a large, vocal national coalition to push through these needed changes.
Similarly the racism embedded in our criminal justice system has fallout in a number of ways in the ability to get housing. For instance, it is not directly against the law for housing provider to decline to serve someone for a criminal conviction, not matter how minor it was nor how long ago it was. That means someone who was unjustly convicted of a crime is now also unjustly denied housing.
In New York State, we have taken the first step toward fixing that in making arrest without conviction a protected class in housing. The next step is making criminal conviction a protected class. It has been successfully passed in other places so we have models. (And yes, I support going upstream to fix the criminal justice system, but that is an even bigger undertaking as we have seen from the lack of action in response to the Black Lives Matter huge demonstrations.)
Now looking at the amount of backlash to bail reform, I know that making conviction a protected class will be turned into yet another wedge issue for the purpose of political gain, but the work still needs to be done. It will take a very broad coalition, including many religious institutions, to make criminal conviction a protected class in New York as it is in other place across the country.
Follow the Money
Now the movie All The President’s Men popularized the phrase “follow the money” in a negative sense of where wrong is being done, but it also takes resources to do good.
Before I turn to talking about the need for continuing and increased funding for this work. I should explain that the vast majority of the enforcement work for fair housing laws is done by private nonprofits like mine, not by government agencies, though we are largely dependent on funding from those agencies to do this work.
Generally in business, the resources to continue business operations are obtained from the same people that it is serving. In nonprofits, the clients often do not have the resources to pay for the services so the funding is provided from the government, philanthropic foundations, or individual donors.
Ian Wilder, Esq.
631-567-5111 ext. 314
*P.S. The reading I chose for the service was:
“It is from numberless diverse acts of courage such as these that the belief that human history is thus shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”
-Robert F. Kennedy
University of Capetown, Capetown, South Africa
June 6, 1966
P.P.S. Every monthly recurring donor will receive a limited-edition LIHS Fair Housing Month 2023 tote bag.