Housing dilemma draws calls for better leadership. Suburb's resistance to desegregation plan continues

Continued resistance to a court-mandated housing plan to desegregate neighborhoods has made the city of Yonkers a symbol - some say of racism, some say of class division. Earlier this month, although under court order to develop a plan for new housing, the Yonkers city council turned down a package of zoning and tax-abatement programs that would lead to the building of 800 moderate-income subsidized housing units in the eastern part of the city. This action by the city council, a federal judge has ruled, is therefore in contempt of court.

And while crippling contempt fines, which would leave the New York suburb bankrupt within days, have been suspended pending an appeal of the court order, many residents say no real leadership has evolved to solve the longstanding issue.

It's time that the pretense - a ``nobody can tell us what to do'' attitude - should stop, says Harry Kaplan of the Homeless Services Network. He adds that new housing for low- and moderate-income families is critically needed.

``[City leaders] should be telling themselves what to do,'' Mr. Kaplan says.

Yonkers, like many American suburbs, has developed in a pattern that puts poor, largely minority residents in one sector of the city. The poorer sector, most of which is located in the western part of the city, is divided by an expressway from the middle class, largely white population in the east.

Housing and civil rights advocates nationally have long looked at zoning laws as potential instruments of housing discrimination.

In Yonkers, federal judge Leonard Sand of Manhattan ruled in 1985 that the city had ``illegally and intentionally'' segregated its public schools through housing patterns. He ordered both school-board and city officials to produce desegregation plans.

For the most part, Yonkers schools have been desegregated. But the city has not moved to bring government-subsidized housing to the white neighborhoods. Prior to the refusal of the newer housing plan, the council had approved 200 low-density, low-income units scattered on the east side.

Leading the charge against the program were councillors who responded to concerns of white residents that property values would tumble and that drugs and crime would infest their neighborhoods. A recent poll shows that nearly two-thirds of the city's residents opposed the housing plan.

But Judge Sand called the situation in Yonkers ``a total breakdown of any sense of responsibility'' as he levied fines against the city that would double daily. The four councillors were also fined $500 a day.

On Aug. 9, the fines were suspended on appeal, but the city is still being closely monitored by the state Emergency Financial Control Board, which was established in 1984 when the state bailed the city out of bankruptcy. Last week, the board retook control of city finances in light of the situation.

Other cases of exclusion by communities have gone through the courts. The so-called Mt. Laurel decisions in New Jersey said that zoning could not be used to keep out low-income residents, and that communities must include a ``fair share'' of affordable housing in regional development.

In Yonkers there is some resentment that the case has been cast as one of racism. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, a plaintiff in the case along with the United States Justice Department, contends that racist attitudes are involved. Judge Sand has agreed with this in his findings.

But many white residents say they are just fighting to save their neighborhoods and do not object to black or Hispanic neighbors who move in at market values.

Others, who see a lack of clear leadership on the issue, say neither side, either for or against the housing, has done anything positive in addressing the problem of affordable housing.

A flurry of groups on both sides have sprung up in Yonkers. Another group called YIELD (Yonkers Interfaith, Education, and Leadership Development) is trying to train community leaders and to deal with the real question of safety in current housing projects. They see this as a positive way to involve the community in solving the housing problem.

``A lot of people are frustrated,'' said Ralph Crosby, a landscape architect involved in YIELD. ``There are 500 rabble-rousers yelling and screaming. The rest of us would like to get on with daily business.''

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