Declaring victory in housing settlement, Astorino says court-appointed monitor should be removed.
Westchester County has finally met one of the most contentious requirements in its ongoing affordable housing agreement with the federal government.
After 10 previous submissions were rejected, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has accepted a county analysis of how local zoning codes can create barriers to fair-housing choices.
The analysis didn’t find any exclusionary zoning in the county.
“This is vindication for Westchester and our local municipalities that it is a victory won on facts, on principle and on persistence,” County Executive Rob Astorino, a Republican, told reporters at a news conference in his officer on Tuesday.
In a July 14 letter to Deputy County Executive Kevin Plunkett, HUD Regional Director Jay Golden said the department “appreciates the County’s commitment to reaching an amicable resolution in this matter.”
Same analysis, different outcome
The decision comes weeks after a new administrator for HUD’s New York and New Jersey office was named. Westchester resident Lynne Patton, a former event planner and vice president of the Eric Trump Foundation, was named administrator in late June — just two months after HUD’s last rejection of the county’s analysis of impediments, or AI.
The latest AI was "essentially the same" as the previous version, both put together by the firm VHB Engineering, according to Astorino's staff. Catherine Borgia, the county legislature's Democratic majority leader, said what had changed this time was Patton's appointment.
"After years of wasting Westchester taxpayer money, and 10 attempts at submitting an acceptable analysis of impediments, it seems the 11th time is the charm for the County Executive," Borgia said in a statement.
In a letter defending the previous analysis, VHB acknowledged there were "concentrations" of white, black and Hispanic populations in the county but concluded that zoning was not the cause. Astorino said he didn't know what role, if any, the new leadership had in the decision but said the facts were on the county's side "no matter who was the president, no matter who was in the staff at HUD."
The county was sued by a housing group called the Anti-Discrimination Center of Metro New York after Westchester had accepted $52 million in federal development grants on behalf of most of its communities by falsely certifying in the grant paperwork that it had analyzed impediments to fair housing.
Westchester settled that suit in 2009, agreeing to build 750 units of affordable housing in 31 eligible communities where blacks and Hispanics made up less than three percent and seven percent of the overall population, respectively. It also had to take other steps to promote fair housing in the region.
Astorino, who came into office in 2010 after the settlement was signed, has clashed with the federal government and a court-appointed monitor over implementation of the agreement since. The agreement was supposed to be completed at the end of 2016, but some lingering requirements have extended the county's obligations.
Former federal judge Stephen C. Robinson, the second monitor in the agreement, was appointed this year to oversee the conclusion of the settlement. Astorino said Robinson, whose costs are $675 and hour, was no longer needed.
"The idea behind the settlement was to build affordable homes, not pay lawyers," he said.
County says it met requirements
Westchester says it has exceeded its unit requirement with 790 units greenlighted and another 100 in the pipeline, but the AI has been one of the unresolved issues. The settlement requires the AI must be deemed acceptable to HUD, but the county’s analyses have continually found no systematic barriers to fair housing.
The county says it has spent $30 million more than the $51.6 million it was required to under the settlement. It says the average subsidy was $290,000 per unit.
Of the 425 units of housing that are already occupied, roughly one third are homeownership, according to Astorino's staff. Data from the county show 35 percent of those applying for the county's units identified as white, 35 as African-American and 29 percent as Hispanic and 8 percent as multi-racial.
To complete its obligations under the settlement, the county is running an education campaign to promote fair housing in the region called "One Community." The county has spent $1 million so far in marketing and outreach, an Astorino spokesman said, and will continue running ads through the end of the year.
Mike Kaplowitz, a Democrat and chairman of the county Board of Legislators, said the the settlement winding down didn't mean there still wasn't a need for affordable housing in the region. He said he expected the 2018 county budget to include incentives to build affordable units.
"I look forward to Westchester County government getting back into the business of building common sense affordable housing that is economically viable," he said at the news conference.