Reine Duell Bethany - Author and Illustrator
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Using and Abusing a Village

When I began researching race in America 1.5 years ago, I came across many startling facts that upset me. One was about community decay. A cycle got set up in America whereby integration began, lasted maybe 15 years, and then became undermined by loopholes. The cse of the  Mount Laurel Doctrine, described in David Dante Troutt's The Price of Paradise: The Costs of Inequality and a Vision for a More Equitable America, exemplifies this trend. In New Jersey, a decision was made that instead of concentrating the poor (often synonymous with black) in a few cities, every community should do its share to care for the needy. Each community was going to allot part of its space to affordable housing, in order to locate disadvantaged people near opportunities. But a revisiting of that ruling reversed any real progress in the distribution of needy people among wealthier communities.
          The most clever loophole was this one (I quote here from from Wikipedia, "the use of regional contribution agreements (transferring part of the obligation to a willing municipality, usually an urban center, in the same region along with payment in an amount agreed by the municipalities)." In other words, if a white community really didn't want lower- or modest-income black people around, it could pay, say, Camden to keep them as long as it gave Camden money to do so. If Camden accepted the money (which a pressured municipality probably would), then the good that the law was intended to do got undone. The population that needed to be placed nearer to better schools and job opportunities stayed put.
           Well, I'm living in loophole reality. The Village of Hempstead, I am finding, is rife with affordable housing units. Entire buildings are given to Section 8 tenants. Now, I believe in the affordable housing principle because there really are segments of society that tend to be less well of, most notably the elderly and single-parent families . . . but I am also finding that in New York State, Section 8 buildings are exempt from property taxes.
          The more Section 8 housing a municipality contains, the more taxes must be collected from businesses and homeowners in order to meet a municipality's budget. Unfortunately for Hempstead, buildings that earn nothing but are supported by homeowner taxes have large footprints here: the Town of Hempstead Hall with its very large parking lot, and the (also very large) Nassau County Courthouse. Furthermore, builders have somehow been permitted to increase the population density of Hempstead, which currently stands at 14,356 people per square mile. The population density of Garden City is 4,200; of Rockville Centre, 7,333; of West Hempstead, 6,7300; of East Meadow, 9,170 -- all municipalities that directly border Hempstead. As I drive around Hempstead into its poorer areas, I see tiny houses crammed side-by-side with miniature yards. These houses themselves have been permitted to become overpopulated, as immigrants, especially from Latin America, have clustered here. These immigrants are largely renters, not homeowners. I have nothing against immigrants, but how much can one municipality take?
          Garden City, directly to the north of Hempstead, is 93% white. An April 14, 2014 CBS News story ( details an order by a federal judge ruling that Garden City's zoning decisions made affordable housing unfeasible. What about other municipalities? I will investigate.
          I have discovered that PILOT programs -- payment in lieu of taxes -- can be forced on a village by the Town of Hempstead or by Nassau County. Both have industrial development agencies (IDAs) that can make an agreement with a developer to start a business in a Nassau County or Town of Hempstead municipality (village, hamlet) whether the village agrees or not. The developer is required only to pay a certain amount of money each year to the municipality -- a much lower amount than the municipality would have collected in real property tax. Thus the business can come and make money, and when its PILOT period ends, just leave.
          It looks to me as though this PILOT cycle has repeatedly occurred here in Hempstead. Happily, a few businesses -- Pep Boys, Staples, Home Depot, and Stop 'N' Shop -- have remained beyond their PILOT period and are now paying property taxes to Hempstead. But many more have come and gone, taking employment opportunities with them.
          Other factors contribute to Hempstead's troubles besides PILOT agreements and Section 8 overpopulation. However, at this time it truly appears to me that Hempstead is one of those largely nonwhite municipalities where the people that other municipalities don't want get sent. For example, in 2014, a contingent of unaccompanied minors from Latin America was refused housing by Bethpage, and apparently by other municipalities, and they all ended up here in Hempstead -- including teens who have never gone to school in their lives. Yet Hempstead, prior to these childrens' arrival,  literally could not seat all of its schoolchildren in its old buildings and temporary trailers. How was Hempstead suddenly supposed to hire more teachers and create more space for these unaccompanied minors? Why aren't wealthier, less densely populated communities more willing to extend themselves to meet a common need?
          One positive thing has happened in the New York legislature after much effort on the part of Hempstead Assemblywoman Earlene Hooper: Hempstead and Freeport (another village with many immigrants and people of color) are now in a position to refuse PILOT agreements if they wish. Not all PILOT agreements are entirely bad, but a municipality should have some say in whether to take them on. At last, the mayors of Hempstead and Freeport have the power to consult with their boards of trustees before taking on another PILOT, and decide whether the PILOT is best for the village or not.
          At village meetings, I keep hearing a statistic: that 78% of Village of Hempstead residents are renters, while 22% are property owners. If a lot of those renters are in Section 8 housing, where does that leave homeowners at tax time? Highly burdened. Mayor Wayne Hall has said repeatedly that the main revenue for Hempstead Village is from real property taxes enacted on homeowners. Recently the village board of trustees voted to raise the tax rate by 6.67 percent, despite a public hearing at which the villagers vigorously protested and offered alternative solutions to the steep hike, which went beyond New York State's legal tax cap of 2% increase per year. 
          Village of Hempstead residents have a fear: that their homes will be taxed so heavily that, in the end, the residents who have lived in them and maintained them for decades -- in some cases, for generations -- will be forced out. We feel powerless to find other solutions to yearly tax hikes -- and Hempstead residents already pay significantly more homeowner property taxes than in Uniondale directly to the east, or in Garden City. How much can a municipality take?

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