Last week we wrote about St Bernard Parish's BLOOD RELATIVE ORDINANCE. It turns out that a similar--though arguably slightly less sinister--weapon of exclusion is being deployed right here in New York City: the LETTER OF RECOMMENDATION.
We had just returned from a visit to Brooklyn's Sea Gate, and were doing some research on gated communities in New York City. (From what we can tell, outside of Staten Island--and not counting Park Avenue co-ops, Gramercy Park, or luxury rental towers, which some argue are effectively the same thing as gated communities--New York City has four gated communities: Sea Gate, Breezy Point, Edgewater Park, and Silver Beach Gardens.) This led us to research "co-op communities," an ownership model that all gated communities in New York happen to share. Co-op communities are a little bit different than co-op buildings. In the former, residents own their homes but lease the land from owners’ collectives. Owners pay a monthly maintenance fee for streets, common areas, and, in the cases above, the beach. Of course, with co-ops come co-op boards. While co-op boards can be famously exclusionary (just ask Richard Nixon, Calvin Klein, or Mariah Carey), they are 100% legal, and in fact do not even have to disclose what they are looking for in a buyer or explain why they reject someone.
Nonetheless, what was illegal, at least according to the Fair Housing Justice Center, was for the co-op community at Edgewater Park to use LETTERS OF RECOMMENDATION to steer blacks away from Edgewater Park. As the New York Times reports, the lawsuit filed by the Fair Housing Justice Center "claims the co-ops’ requirement that buyers procure three recommendation letters from current residents, who are overwhelmingly white, had a discriminatory effect." (A recent Architect's Newspaper story on gated communities in New York City notes that in 2000, Edgewater Park and Silver Beach Gardens were 82 percent white, 12 percent Hispanic, and 1 percent black.)
This begs the question: what makes these LETTERS OF RECOMMENDATION different from those that exclusive Manhattan co-ops require? Why doesn't the Fair Housing Justice Center take them to court? One answer is that it looks like Edgewater Park was caught practicing RACIAL STEERING. Another is the allegation that the LETTERS OF RECOMMENDATION "requirement" is not applied to whites, who "are told that a seller or the sellers' friends - whom the applicants do not otherwise know - can provide the references." But on another level, excluding people from a community in the city does seem more pernicious than excluding people from a building on the city. As urban theorists from Christopher Alexander to Leslie Martin to Kees Christiaanse have pointed out, pockets of homogeneity in the city are desirable, so long as they are open, connected, and accessible. If not everyone can live in a Park Avenue co-op, at least everyone can enjoy the same public amenities--handsome streets, Central Park, etc.--that those who do live in the co-ops enjoy. I don't want to overemphasize this point, but it does highlight an important difference: neither you nor I can enjoy Edgewater Park's beaches.
In any case, we're looking forward to hearing how this lawsuit progresses.
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