HUD's Grand Experiment
Posted: 05/19/2013 05:30:00 AM PDT
White Plains, N.Y.
I'm here to meet Robert Astorino, Westchester's County executive, the county's elected mayor and administrator combined.
As HUD Deputy Secretary Ron Sims was quoted, Westchester is the department's "grand experiment."
The agency made this collection of mostly upscale middle-class communities their first target for not conforming to its image of racial diversity. It has been speculated that Marin is next on HUD's list to prosecute counties for failure to "affirmatively further fair housing."
HUD's hook on Westchester, as well as Marin, is that it accepts federal money, including "block grants," to build affordable housing. Federal cash isn't free. The price this county will pay may be the loss of locally controlled residential zoning.
It started when activists filed suit claiming the county's mostly single-family zoning was discriminatory to low-income African Americans and Hispanics. While Westchester has the same racial mix as Manhattan, its incorporated towns — host to high-priced homes — are mostly white.
The then-county executive quickly settled the suit.
Since the agreement was in a legal action, a federal judge now has authority to "monitor" the county and order "compliance."
The settlement proved unpopular. The prior county executive, a Democrat, was defeated in this overwhelmingly blue county. Astoriano, a moderate Republican, was elected as his replacement.
HUD believes that West-chester failed to "analyze how its placement of affordable housing affected segregation and racial diversity" and that the county's "production and placement of affordable housing increases segregation."
Astoriano regards as preposterous the notion that majority white single-family zoned neighborhoods are by definition discriminatory. To him it's economics, not discrimination. Westchester, like Marin, has experienced almost no instances of overt housing discrimination.
The Westchester agreement required spending $51.6 million for 750 affordable housing units in 31 mostly white communities.
HUD agrees Westchester is on schedule to meet this goal. That's not enough. HUD claimed the county must go "beyond the four corners of the (written) settlement."
HUD will not approve Westchester's sixth version of the mandated "Analysis of Impediments" to an expanded definition of fair housing.
According to Astorino, HUD will ultimately demand Westchester abolish zoning limiting locations for multifamily housing, controlling sizes of developments, lot size and density requirements that encourage single-family housing.
He believes HUD then will want the county to adopt planning rules that say lack of water, sewage, transportation and school capacity can't be factors limiting development.
HUD's New York Acting Regional Administrator Mirza Orriols says it is not currently asking Westchester to alter its zoning. She concedes that could happen if the approved agreement leads HUD to believe that single-family home zoning ipso facto limits diversity.
Since the county's cities weren't part of the settlement, the county balks at HUD's requiring Westchester do its utmost, including initiating litigation, to force its cities to ultimately dismantle single-family zoning. HUD says the towns are stuck since they too accepted federal housing cash.
Astorino hasn't ruled out rejecting HUD's $7.4 million annual community development grants.
Don't take the cash and HUD loses much leverage. Westchester's problem, like Marin, is that it is still bound by the existing voluntary compliance agreement.
To some, HUD's actions mimic the 1980s social engineering of the British Labour Party's "loony left." To others, it's about civil rights and remedying perceived racial discrimination.
Next Sunday we'll look at how Marin got in HUD's sights and the implications.
Columnist Dick Spotswood of Mill Valley now shares his views on local politics twice weekly in the IJ. His email address is email@example.com.