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County Reps Say Settlement Breach Is News to Them

WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. - The Westchester legislators discovered the county was not fulfilling its end of the 2009 housing lawsuit settlement Friday when Republican County Executive Robert Astorino denounced the settlement as economically and legally impossible .

The Board of Legislators, which has a Democratic majority, also learned Friday that Westchester had lost a little more than $4 million in federal grants due to the noncompliance.

County Board Chairman Ken Jenkins released a statement saying Astorino’s announcements were “highly disappointing.”

“The issue of non-compliance has never been raised, nor did we have any idea that this problem existed. None of the written correspondence from the federal officials regarding the housing settlement that the county executive mentioned at today’s press conference has been shared with the board,” Jenkins said in a statement. “We urge the Astorino administration to work with the board to develop a new approach towards meeting the goals of the housing settlement.”

Friday morning, Astorino announced his administration was at an impasse with the federal government, saying requirements laid out by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) were an “unprecedented, overreaching” of the federal government.

“We can only go so far, and we cannot allow HUD to dismantle local zoning and bankrupt our taxpayers. And that is what they’re trying to do,” Astorino said. “We will not have a gun to our head to do things that are outside the settlement; that we don’t agree with; and that the laws don’t make us do.”

Westchester County agreed to spend seven years and $51.6 million building 750 affordable housing units in the county’s predominantly white neighborhoods in an August 2009 lawsuit settlement with the Anti-Discrimination Center (ADC) and federal authorities. After HUD rejected the county’s fifth, and most recent, required report -- an analysis of impediments to housing -- on July 13, the federal government took away about $4 million in community development block grants.

The county executive said the loss of federal funds may stall affordable housing construction and force 18 layoffs.

Astorino accused HUD of illegally requesting that Westchester ignore a clause in the New York State constitution that gives local municipalities the power to set zoning. A May 13 letter from HUD suggested the county government give municipalities three months to alter zoning considered antagonistic to affordable housing before suspending funds and taking legal action, according to Astorino.

“They know full well that we can’t dismantle local zoning, nor would I,” said Astorino. “Without any justification, HUD is arbitrarily calling for half of the 750 units to have three bedrooms. Again, no word of that was in the settlement. This demand would force the county to run out of money pretty quickly.”

Astorino’s administration estimates fulfilling the new building requirements would cost $94.3 million, which is almost twice what the county said it would spend when it agreed to the settlement. The county executive hopes to raise his concerns with HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan at a meeting tentatively scheduled on July 27.

HUD spokesman Brian Sullivan said Astorino’s rhetoric was only distracting from creating a more equitable housing environment.

“We’ve been working for two years now to help Westchester County satisfy its legal obligations under the settlement agreement. Yet, the county continues to fall short of these obligations and shifting the conversation to HUD doesn’t change that fact,” Sullivan said, according to an email from HUD. “Rhetoric like this is unproductive and does not help us reach the goal of expanding fair housing choices for the residents of Westchester County.”

The dispute over the analysis of impediments reports may lie in Astorino’s belief that income, and not racial discrimination, has kept parts of the county predominantly white. He disagreed with allegations that minorities are clustered throughout Westchester and that not enough has been done to integrate and expand those pockets.

“If you want to buy a $1 million dollar home, you have to have a million dollars to do it or the access to the financing,” said Astorino. “The impediment is economics. It’s been that way forever. It probably always will be. There are laws against racial discrimination.”

The Executive Director of ADC, which won $7.5 million in the lawsuit it brought against Westchester, disagreed with Astorino’s argument and said his remarks “reflect every position that got Westchester County in trouble in the first place.”

“The entire lawsuit and the entire consent agreement are about Westchester’s failure to take on residential segregation,” said Craig Gurian, ADC’s executive director. “The patterns of segregation in Westchester were created by deliberate segregation in the 40s, 50s and 60s. They did not fall from the sky. Those patterns of segregation are maintained to this day by social engineering that’s known as exclusionary zoning, which keeps out affordable housing and has a disproportionate effect on African Americans and Latinos.”

What do you think of Astorino’s remarks? How successful do you think the county has been in providing affordable housing? Do you think segregation is an issue in the county? Email thoughts to strangle@thedailywhiteplains.com and we’ll include your responses in future coverage.

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