George Latimer’s History of Slow-Walking Desegregation

New York congressional candidate George Latimer has come under fire for racially insensitive comments. His history of slow-walking federal desegregation efforts has received less notice.

Westchester county executive George Latimer in White Plains, New York, on December 12, 2023. (Jeenah Moon / Washington Post via Getty Images)

George Latimer, the corporate-funded primary challenger gunning for the congressional seat in New York’s 16th district currently occupied by Rep. Jamaal Bowman, for years faced criticism for failing to fulfill a federal mandate to desegregate Westchester County, a review of the public record shows.

Two years after winning the county executive’s office by running as an affordable housing backer who would finally make good on the county’s long-delayed and court-ordered desegregation efforts, Latimer stood accused by the attorney who had won the landmark lawsuit that spurred the court order of having “absolutely no intention of changing Westchester’s segregated status quo” and of deliberately failing to obey the order.

Latimer had “squandered” the best opportunity in twenty-five years to attack the county’s deeply ingrained segregation, that attorney charged; his administration had a “credibility problem” on the matter, a local newspaper stated. It was not an isolated incident. As a county legislator in the 1990s, Latimer had served as an obstacle to another landmark court-ordered desegregation effort in Westchester, opposing and delaying an attempt by the city of Yonkers to use a section of parkland to build affordable housing.

Today experts say that the scale of Westchester’s segregation has changed little since those landmark cases, and the county is only becoming more unaffordable. Latimer’s House campaign is now being backed by massive amounts of outside spending from the United Democracy Project, an AIPAC-run super PAC funded in large part by real estate interests.

Latimer’s record as a county legislator has largely escaped notice throughout the race. Yet his history of inaction on desegregation could prove directly relevant should he win the district, which encompasses half of predominantly white Westchester, including some of its most segregated areas, as well as the northern Bronx — all at a time when President Joe Biden is turning his attention to tackling the out-of-control housing costs that are increasingly central to voter concerns, and the racially segregated residential patterns that continue to ripple out from them.

“Unwilling to Rock the Boat”

The unhappiness with Latimer was rooted in a federal court’s 2009 consent decree, spurred by a successful lawsuit brought against the county three years earlier by local attorney and Anti-Discrimination Center (ADC) executive director Craig Gurian. (Gurian declined to speak to Jacobin for this report, citing work commitments.) The suit charged that Westchester, a wealthy, overwhelmingly white suburban county just north of New York City, had defrauded the United States by falsely certifying it was advancing fair housing to get tens of millions of dollars in federal funds. The US District Court judge agreed and ordered Westchester to, among other things, build at least 750 affordable housing units in seven years and change restrictive zoning laws throughout the county.

The order “promised to bring about significant changes in Westchester County’s historic failure to provide affordable housing. We and groups around it were hopeful, excited,” says Bennett Gershman, a Pace University law professor who tracked the county’s progress on the settlement. “The words that come to mind now are ‘slow,’ ‘frustrating,’ ‘foot dragging.’ Yes, there’s been progress, but it’s been halting, sluggish.”

Government inaction and obstruction was driven by resistance from county residents who feared the desegregation efforts would, among other things, bring down property values, lose them tax revenue, and change the character and aesthetics of their communities. Republican Rob Astorino rode this wave of suburban outrage to the county executive’s office in 2009 and spent the next ten years fighting what he called “unprecedented bureaucratic overreach” by the federal government.

Fair housing advocates hoped Latimer’s 2017 defeat of Astorino would bring about a change of direction. Latimer had criticized Astorino’s “obstructionism” on the desegregation order, promised to finally resolve the case, and accused Astorino of making “a dog whistle to certain people,” even directly likening him to segregationist George Wallace. Revulsion at then president Donald Trump, whom Astorino supported, caused a blue wave that propelled Latimer to a sixteen-point victory and gave him a 13–4 Democratic supermajority on the county board of legislators.

Yet by the time the settlement was officially and controversially closed by the courts at the Justice Department’s urging four years later, little progress had been made. Only 723 of the 750 units legally mandated to be built by the courts had actually materialized, even though the language of the settlement mandated “at least” 750 units be constructed over seven years. That target was not met.

“By its terms, this is a floor, not a ceiling,” the Department of Housing and Urban Development had written the chair of the Westchester Board of Legislators in 2013 about the 750 figure. Even the court-appointed monitor who declared that Westchester had “substantially met its obligations under the settlement” admitted in the same report that the 750 units were “not intended to be the

end goal but instead a runway” for Westchester to comprehensively deal with its unaffordability problem. Even the Housing Needs Assessment put out by Latimer’s administration in 2019 had determined the county was short nearly twelve thousand affordable units.

By almost every metric, in other words, Latimer’s administration fell short of meeting even the bare minimum requirement of the desegregation order, despite having run on promising to fulfill it. That didn’t stop Latimer from taking a victory lap in August 2021.

“I do not attempt to take credit for all of the affordable housing that was developed over the past twelve years,” he said as the settlement was officially closed. “But I think we have proven time and again that fair and affordable housing is something that we believe in.”

The ADC’s Gurian, who had brought the lawsuit that had produced the desegregation order, excoriated the move. County government under Latimer hadn’t done nearly enough to make headway on desegregation efforts but had simply paid lip service, he charged.

“Critical elements of the consent decree have been and/or continue to be ignored or interpreted in a way to pervert both the provisions themselves and the goals and purposes of the decree,” Gurian wrote in a response to the court.

The push to end the consent decree, Gurian charged in a separate statement, presented “a wildly optimistic view of the intentions of [Latimer’s] county administration,” which “remains unwilling to use the tools at its command” to advance desegregation efforts. The whole thing was a “charade.” And what Gurian elsewhere called a “golden opportunity” to fix the county’s segregation “has been squandered by an ongoing lack of compliance, lack of enforcement, and lack of oversight.”

He wasn’t the only one. Jerry Levy, a former legal aid attorney who helped low-income families find housing in the county, told Jacobin that he strongly disagrees with the claim that the county under Latimer had met its obligations when the case was closed.

“The whole purpose was to change, to give minority people, low-income people, the ability to move anywhere in Westchester County,” he says. “But there wasn’t enough housing. These towns, they have zoning laws that were made for the specific purpose of keeping families out.”

“It should have continued,” says Gershman. “They shouldn’t have just packed up and left.”

“Not Going to Go Outside the Lines”

These criticisms were not new. Latimer by that point had spent years taking fire from Gurian and other fair housing advocates for failing to fully abide by the 2009 consent decree in other ways. Among the court’s directives was one that ordered Westchester to make municipalities drop their practice of exclusionary zoning — zoning laws that restrict the building of certain types of housing, like multifamily homes, keeping lower-income residents priced out of neighborhoods. The consent decree made clear the county was legally obligated to “use all available means” to do this, including by conditioning funds to, or even “taking legal action” against, those municipalities.

Yet by the time the case was closed, only twenty-one of thirty-one of municipalities with exclusionary zoning on the books had actually adopted the recommended model zoning ordinance that required 10 percent of all units in any new development to be affordable — already a conservative figure by New York standards. (New York City zoning, for instance, has a legal requirement of 25 percent affordability.)

In other words, ten Westchester municipalities — including the upscale, mostly white communities of Pelham Manor, Mount Pleasant, and Latimer’s hometown of Rye — were left “with zoning that arguably fails to encourage integration or leaves segregated housing patterns in place,” as Assistant US Attorney David Kennedy wrote in a brief to the court.

“Implementation of the consent decree nibbled around the edges of the zoning issue,” the local Journal News stated in July 2021.

These were stark statements. Just a few years earlier, Latimer had compared his political opponent to one of American history’s most notorious segregationists. Now he was dispassionately being accused of having left segregation in place.

Westchester’s failure was ensured by Latimer’s decision to ignore the order to “take legal action” and to instead largely hope that recalcitrant municipalities would voluntarily change their laws. This inaction was reflected in Latimer’s 2019 Housing Needs Assessment: its only solutions to the issue were a program for “technical assistance to municipalities to draft model ordinances” and a “task force to facilitate municipal conversations to explore the development” of a compact to boost affordable housing.

Rather than taking the ten holdouts to court, Latimer sent them letters, which were ignored. When Westchester’s Industrial Development Agency — a quasi-private entity appointed by the county executive that provides incentives to businesses — gave $6.6 million worth of tax breaks to a Boston firm planning to build 450 apartments in the town of Harrison with only scant affordable units, Latimer stood on the sidelines.

Not everyone today blames Latimer for failing to take stronger action. “I’m not sure that that tactic makes sense,” Gershman says about the idea of suing municipalities. “What do you get from litigation except time wasting and money for lawyers?”

But at the time, fair housing advocates bitterly criticized Latimer’s inaction.

“I’m disappointed that the county executive was not willing to step up to the plate,” Alexander Roberts, founder and former CEO of the Westchester Workforce Housing Coalition, commented on Latimer’s absence on the Harrison apartment project. “If he had personally put some political capital behind the effort to include consent-decree qualified affordable housing, it would have been done. All Harrison needed was a little push.”

In fact, legal action had earlier proven effective. In 2016, the combination of intervention by the housing monitor and the threat of a lawsuit from housing activists successfully pressured the village of Buchanan to make a zoning change that allowed affordable senior apartments to be built, despite rancorous opposition to the project.

Latimer also punted on the only form of coercion he did seem willing to use: withholding funds. “We aren’t going to back down,” Latimer said in September 2021, when his threat to deprive Yorktown of $10 million for construction of sewer lines unless it passed the model zoning ordinance aroused ire. But half a year later, he folded, pointing to “pollution” in an unspecified reservoir providing drinking water for New York City that needed to be urgently remediated. An investigation by the Journal News soon “discovered there’s nothing to remediate,” the paper reported at the time.

“He could have said it would be extraordinary if a municipality were so committed to segregation that it was ready to sacrifice clean drinking water to do so,” Gurian told the paper then. “The county executive has demonstrated that he is not prepared to take any serious steps to affirmatively further fair housing.”

Whether for lack of will or desire, Latimer ultimately proved unwilling to use the most powerful tools at his disposal to force Westchester to desegregate, despite being expressly ordered to do so by federal courts.

“The county and state had the authority to make the towns change the zoning, but they wouldn’t go to court, wouldn’t enforce it, because they knew it would be the end of their political careers,” Levy tells Jacobin. “They put [their] election over their legal and moral responsibility.”

“He’s a very good politician, so he’s not going to go outside the lines,” Andrew Beveridge, a respected demographer who provided key testimony in the original 2009 lawsuit, told Jacobin about Latimer.

Though Latimer later put funding toward building affordable housing, including $100 million in the 2024 county budget that he unveiled last December, the experts Jacobin spoke to say money alone is not enough to offset the restrictive effects of exclusionary zoning — any more than more money alone can overcome the pernicious effects of segregation in schools.

Affordable housing may have been built, says Levy, “but where? They’re not going to build any housing in white areas,” but rather in areas where schools are low quality and crime rates are bad.

“Affordable housing has happened, but sometimes it’s happened in communities that are not close to all-white constituencies — near a highway for instance,” says Gershman. “Developers who want to build affordable housing in X, Y, and Z communities can’t do it if the zoning laws prevent them from building affordable housing there.”

Latimer’s decision may have been smart for the future of his political career in the county. But a year after the settlement closed, the Journal News reported on census data showing that white residents of Westchester were about twice as likely to own their home as the county’s black or Latino residents.

Show Me No Hero

Latimer’s stint as county executive is not the first time he has faced criticism on desegregation.

As a member of the county board of legislators and later board chairman, Latimer spent years fighting a lonely battle against another desegregation order, this time regarding the city of Yonkers. By 1997, officials had spent more than a decade dragging their feet on complying with the landmark desegregation order issued by a US district judge in 1986, the subject of the 2015 HBO miniseries Show Me a Hero.

As Yonkers fought to use four-and-a-half acres of local parkland to build thirty-four mixed-income residential buildings in partial fulfillment of a court order, the battle lines were drawn. On one side was Yonkers’s mayor, its city council, the local NAACP chapter, New York’s state legislature, and its then Republican governor George Pataki. On the other were environmental activists and a dwindling group of county legislators, Latimer among them, who put preserving the parkland above building affordable housing.

Latimer was one of the eight county legislators who narrowly defeated a push in March 1997 to hand the parkland over to the city for housing. A month later, he was on the losing end of a 12–3 vote to transfer the parkland, voting alongside two Republicans on the majority-GOP board.

Four years later, as board chairman, Latimer accused the city on a technicality of breaking a promise to give the county twenty-five acres of the parkland in exchange for the land set aside for housing, holding up county funds earmarked for the project. It was delayed again, this time past a court-ordered deadline.

Two years after that, when the court ruled against this claim and ordered the county to release the funds, Latimer proposed that Westchester simply sue Yonkers directly over the issue, with the county attorney asking the legislature to let her do so at his request. It put Latimer on the other side of the issue from the Democratic county executive Andrew Spano, the county’s first black board chairwoman, and the board’s Democratic majority whip, all of whom finally backed handing the money over to Yonkers.

In other words, Latimer fought the city’s attempt to abide by a federal desegregation order to the bitter end, even when it put him to the right of his own party leadership and much of the New York political establishment, Republicans included. And his willingness to sue the city to block the affordable housing project stood in stark contrast to his refusal sixteen years later to do the same to advance the cause of desegregation.

In another case, in 2001, Latimer backed a successful measure giving localities the right of first refusal to buy local land the county is selling, pressuring Spano to drop the veto threat he had made over concerns it could hinder affordable housing. Spano agreed, on the condition that Latimer and another of the bill’s supporters, the board’s Republican then majority leader, pledged to rewrite the bill to include an exception if the land was being sold to build affordable housing, which they did. But Latimer never followed through on the promise, and five years later, Spano waged a campaign to amend the law, which in the interim had become exactly the obstacle against affordable housing its critics had feared.

It was another case of Latimer working with the GOP to undermine affordable housing measures meant to desegregate the county, even when it put him out of step with a higher-ranking Democrat.

Latimer’s desegregation record sits uneasily alongside racially insensitive comments he’s made throughout his House campaign. Latimer has drawn controversy over the past seven months for saying Bowman has taken money from Hamas supporters, that his  “constituency is Dearborn, Michigan” — a heavily Arab and Muslim American city — and that Bowman only won his seat in 2020 because the murder of George Floyd “generated a tremendous surge in the black community’s concerns, anger, whatever.”

Missing: Political Courage

Today Westchester remains a highly segregated place.

“The [2009] case did not have much effect on Westchester,” says Beveridge. “The people that did move in or are moving into those affordable housing units came out well, but the overall Westchester County — there’ s not that much housing being built, very little affordable housing being built.”

“If you look at the maps, Westchester was like South Africa. There were what I call black pouches,” says Levy. “Nothing has changed. It’s the same as it was thirty years ago.”

A 2023 report by ERASE Racism found that five of Westchester’s forty-six school districts were “intensely segregated,” or comprised of 90 to 100 percent students of color, while a report that same year from the Century Foundation points to several Westchester communities that are almost entirely white. Meanwhile, the fair market rent for a two-bedroom dwelling in the county has leapt a staggering 40 percent in the five years since Latimer’s own housing needs assessment warned that nearly a third of the county’s renters were spending most of their paychecks on housing.

The problem, those who have fought a losing battle on the issue say, is entrenched political opposition in suburban areas across the country to making the kind of fundamental changes needed to boost housing affordability — like getting rid of exclusionary zoning.

“There’s not enough political will to change that,” says Beveridge.

“If Jesus came to Westchester County and ran on affordable housing, he’d probably be called the antichrist,” says Levy.

Latimer himself once said that the “real challenge is to convince voters that we need affordable housing.” The hostility to housing affordability that runs deep in suburban areas is bigger than any one county official or administration, and the blame for Westchester’s failure to desegregate is spread from residents on the ground all the way to the federal government. Yet in the end, there’s arguably never been a time when desegregation efforts were popular — just eras when politicians were willing to take a stand to advance them.

“It could be solved if they just had the courage,” says Levy. “I was brought up to believe that if you’re going to be a real leader, you’ve got to have the courage to say, ‘I’m going to do the right thing.’ And if they throw you out of office, at least you made a change.”