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HUD Appeals Housing Dispute with Westchester

WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. – The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York filed an objection to a federal magistrate’s ruling on a housing settlement dispute, urging the court to deem the county executive’s veto of source-of-income legislation a settlement “breach.”

U.S. District Judge Denise Cote will consider whether County Executive Robert Astorino’s veto of a bill that barred landlords from discriminating against potential tenants based on the source of their income violated the agreement .

The attorney’s office said the magistrate’s ruling “is plainly incorrect to interpret the settlement to permit a county executive to engage in empty, meaningless gestures of ‘persuasion’ intended toward passage of legislation, secure in the knowledge that he will ultimately veto that same legislation.”

The objection, issued Friday by U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, urged the court to “overrule the magistrate judge’s opinion and order and direct the county executive to comply with the terms of the settlement and promote legislation prohibiting source-of-income discrimination by encouraging its passage and ultimately signing it.”

Astorino, a Republican, inherited a 2009 settlement with the federal government from his predecessor requiring Westchester to spend $51.6 million building 750 units of affordable housing in 31 predominately white communities over the course of seven years. Astorino’s administration argued that Andrew Spano, former county executive, fulfilled an agreement stipulation requiring the county executive to promote source-of-income legislation “currently” before legislators. After the bill expired, Astorino vetoed its reincarnation, saying it would inadvertently raise housing costs and make affordable homes more scarce.

The federal government applauded the magistrate’s ruling that Westchester must identify what zoning practices hinder the construction of affordable homes, explain how it will overcome these ordinances and establish a system of consequences for municipalities that fail to amend exclusionary zoning.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which picked up and settled a 2006 lawsuit accusing Westchester of accepting federal housing funds without completing required minority housing pattern studies, according to an issued statement saying it was committed to working through its stalemate with Westchester.

HUD froze $7 million in housing grants when Westchester failed to submit a satisfactory report – analysis of impediments to fair housing – for the fifth time this summer.

“The magistrate judge agreed with the government’s position that HUD has the exclusive authority to determine the acceptability of the county’s submission of an analysis of impediments to fair housing choice and the county’s certification that it is affirmatively furthering fair housing,” the statement read. “To date, the county has yet to do its part. Fulfilling these obligations is a necessary condition of receiving federal taxpayer dollars.”

Astorino’s administration said the logic behind the federal magistrate’s ruling would make a strong case for why the county executive could veto source-of-income legislation without breaching the settlement.

Ned McCormack, a press representative for Astorino, said the magistrate “made a well-reasoned opinion” based on the facts. “We think this position, which is our position will be upheld,” he said.

Legislators agree with Astorino that nobody can force an elected official to sign legislation, according to Chairperson of the Westchester Board of Legislators Kenneth Jenkins (D-Yonkers).

“We’re down to one thing now to be able to resolve. I think everyone can roll up their sleeves and work together with the administration, the board of legislators and the government. We can figure this out,” said Jenkins.

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