This story is part of a WNYC/Gothamist series exploring policy differences between President Donald Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden. The stories will focus on their positions around housing, infrastructure, coronavirus response, and tax policies—and specifically how those policies will affect the New York City region."

This summer, President Donald Trump began issuing a warning to voters: he was the only thing standing in the way of Democratic efforts to desegregate, or, in his word, “abolish” the suburbs. 

“They want low-income housing,” he told Laura Ingraham on Fox News. “And with that comes a lot of other problems, including crime. May not be nice to say it, but I'll say it.”

Critics jumped on the remarks, arguing that they were clearly racist and designed to alarm white suburbanites, particularly women, many of whom appear to be abandoning Trump

But beneath the rhetoric rests a genuine policy debate over the extent to which the federal government needs to push municipalities to undo segregation. This debate has been going on since 1968, when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Fair Housing Act, and was reignited in 2015 when the Obama administration implemented the  AFFH, or Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing, which required municipalities receiving federal funds to put forth detailed plans to reduce segregation. 

Much of this debate has played out in New York City’s suburbs.

Attorney Craig Gurian has been at the forefront of desegregation efforts. In 2006, he filed a lawsuit against Westchester County on behalf of his organization, the Manhattan-based Anti-Discrimination Center

“For years, Westchester, like other jurisdictions that get federal housing funding, was claiming that it was affirmatively furthering fair housing, which means that it was saying that it was taking down barriers to fair housing choice,” Gurian told Gothamist. “And that was a lie. They were doing nothing of the sort. They were taking a hands-off attitude towards their towns and villages that had exclusionary zoning.”

He said vast swathes of the county consisted entirely of expensive, single-family houses, overwhelmingly occupied by white residents. 

Gurian’s claims were echoed by Jerry Levy, who for years ran a Westchester program to provide federal Section 8 subsidies to low-income residents.

“We had developed maps of where people were living in Westchester,” Levy said. “And the first thing we saw, the maps look like South Africa. It looked like there were black townships in Westchester County. There were certain areas where only Blacks lived and no whites.”

A federal judge sided with Gurian, and in 2009 the county entered into a consent decree, a legally-binding agreement, with the federal government. Soon after, Westchester voters elected Republican Rob Astorino as county executive, the chief elected officer. He argued the administration had mischaracterized the problem as a racial one, rather than an economic one.

“The contention by the Obama administration was that single-family residential zoning was exclusionary. And we proved that it was not,” he said in a recent interview. “There are plenty of places within Westchester that many people can't afford to live, including myself. But that's because property values are very high." 

Gurian argued that this line of thinking deliberately ignores the disproportionate impact of zoning regulations on communities of color, namely Black residents. For instance, there are restrictions on building affordable and/or multi-family housing. More than 20 towns and villages in Westchester, he said, had a Black population of 3% percent or lower. 

According to Andrew Beveridge, a sociologist at Queens College who provided expert testimony for the legal proceedings against Westchester, the county is “highly segregated,” among the top 25 most segregated suburbs nationally. (But it is not nearly as segregated, he said, as Brooklyn and Queens, which are the No. 1 and No. 2 most segregated counties in the United States.)

Beyond a mere address, Gurian said there are myriad ways in which one’s residential location translates into different outcomes in other areas of life.

“That includes school segregation, access to health care, exposure to environmental toxins, differential methods of policing, using the race of the neighborhood as a proxy for how the neighborhood is supposed to be policed, employment opportunities, access to parks and other amenities,” he said.

Despite the 2009 consent decree, Gurian found himself fighting for enforcement in the coming years. 

And when President Trump was elected, he suspended the Obama administration’s 2015 AFFH rule requiring cities and towns to put forth detailed desegregation plans or forfeit HUD funding. This summer, he threw it out entirely, after attacking it repeatedly on Twitter.

“At the request of many great Americans who live in the Suburbs, and others, I am studying the AFFH housing regulation that is having a devastating impact on these once thriving Suburban areas. Corrupt Joe Biden wants to make them MUCH WORSE. Not fair to homeowners, I may END!”

By contrast, if elected, former Vice President Joe Biden promises to bring back the Obama era rule. 

Astorino said that while Trump had been inartful in criticizing AFFH—“I don't think he messaged this the best way”—he believed the president is basically correct on the issue and that under a Biden presidency “the suburbs will be fundamentally and forever changed.”

Astorino predicted a suburban future in which the owner of a single-family home had a house on their left, and then a 10 story apartment building on their right” and half a dozen townhouses across the street, all because single-family housing regulations had been extinguished by Democrats.

But Gurian of the Anti-Discrimination Center isn’t convinced restoring Obama’s rule will make much difference.

“I think that Democrats have been excessively squeamish,” he said.

He looks back at the settlement he won years ago against Westchester, secured early in Obama’s first term. It called for 750 affordable units to be built in the whitest areas of Westchester. And they were built, he said, but next to the highway, next to railway tracks—hundreds of units, he argues, were not compliant. Many neighborhoods that were exclusionary 50 years ago remain so today.

“So there is not any reasonable kind of sharing that is going on,” Gurian said. “That’s been for decades and decades.

“It needs to change,” he added. But having fought for change for desegregation for decades, he is convinced the political will simply doesn’t exist.