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Astorino Touts Court Ruling in Housing Settlement Dispute

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Astorino discussing the court ruling.
Astorino discussing the court ruling.

Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino on Monday praised a recent decision by a federal magistrate who ruled landlords did not have to accept vouchers as part of the county’s housing settlement.

U.S. Magistrate Gabriel Gorenstein found that the settlement did not obligate the county executive to sign source-of-income legislation passed by the board of legislators last July. Gorenstein also ruled that Astorino did nothing improper when he vetoed the source-of-income measure approved by the county board.

“It was sort of like David going up against Goliath,” Astorino said at Monday’s press conference in White Plains. “But it’s nice to know that David can beat Goliath and Lehigh can beat Duke. And I think the most important thing is this is a major win not just for the county but for the nation because the federal government does have a limit to its powers and the court said so in this case.”

As result of the magistrate’s rulings, landlords will not be obligated to accept federal housing vouchers. The original agreement stated the county shall promote legislation “to ban source-of-income discrimination in housing,” Astorino said.

“HUD tried to dictate new terms after the agreement was ratified,” Astorino said. HUD can appeal the decision, he said.

As a result of Gorenstein’s decisions, Astorino called on HUD to release $7 million in Community Development Block Grants withheld since last May. The loss of the grants has not only harmed Westchester’s municipalities, it also resulted in the layoffs of five county employees and the elimination of 10 other positions.

“HUD’s preemptive move to punish the county before our day in court was unconscionable,” Astorino said, adding he sent a letter to HUD as well as President Barack Obama and the county’s congressional delegation seeking to have the $7 million restored.

“My arguments with HUD have never been about the need for affordable housing,” Astorino said. “They’ve been with HUD’s attempt to dictate terms that were never in the settlement.”

The 2009 settlement requires Westchester to spend about $51 million to develop 750 affordable units in 31 municipalities across the county by 2016. The units need to be marketed throughout the tri-state area.

Astorino said the county “is well ahead of schedule” in implementing the settlement. Westchester has had 206 affordable units approved by the federal housing monitor, 196 with financing, which is four units away from the requirement of units with financing by the end of 2012, he said. There are 540 units in the pipeline.

Board of Legislators’ Democratic Majority Leader Peter Harckham (D-Katonah) said although he supported the source-of-income bill last year and was disappointed at that portion of the ruling, the mechanism that allows the county to grieve the federal monitor’s decisions functioned properly.

Harckham said last year’s bill would have protected those who received vouchers from federal programs such as Section 8 and disability.

“The whole point of the legislation was housing choice and housing mobility,” Harckham said. “To me, the legislation that passed worked.”

Legislator John Testa (R-Peekskill) said he wasn’t surprised at the federal magistrate’s decision calling it “very fair.”

“I was pretty convinced that the source-of-income issue was handled properly by the county executive, which is why we voted the way we did on the Republican side of the board,” Testa said. “We felt that that had been satisfied.”
He said the zoning issue, however, is not settled. Over time, Testa said he’s hopeful that forcing the county to take individual municipalities to court over their zoning is “outrageous.”

For his part, Board of Legislators Chairman Ken Jenkins (D/Yonkers) was critical of how Astorino has been handling the housing settlement.

“The continued failure of your administration to communicate critical information to the county board to this date is disappointing,” Jenkins stated in his March 16 letter to the county executive. “The county board should have been made aware immediately of this important communication from HUD requiring county board action.”

Martin Wilbur and Alex Weisler contributed to this article.

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