The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) last week accepted Westchester’s analysis that concluded the county did not practice exclusionary zoning, clearing the last major obstacle for compliance of the 2009 affordable housing settlement.
On Tuesday, County Executive Rob Astorino proclaimed victory over the federal government, which he has battled for much of the past seven and a half years over issues relating to the settlement. The settlement forced Westchester to have permits in place for at least 750 new units of affordable housing in 31 mostly white communities by the end of last year.
“So, this is an incredible story, an incredible win for the people of Westchester County as well as, of course, all of our communities and all of our residents, and this is vindication for Westchester and our local municipalities in that it’s a victory won on facts, on principle and on persistence,” Astorino said.
The key stumbling block that until now prevented full compliance was the lack of an Analysis of Impediments (AI), the county’s review of hurdles to building fair and affordable housing, deemed acceptable by HUD, Astorino said. Last Friday, the county received a one-paragraph letter from Jay Golden, the agency’s regional administrator of fair housing and equal opportunity, stating that “HUD has reviewed the AI, which has been deemed acceptable.”
During the past seven years, the county saw 10 versions of its AI rejected, a typically routine and concise document, Astorino said. Instead, HUD pressed the county to ignore many local zoning guidelines such as limits on height and density, sewer requirements and protection of drinking water.
Astorino said the problem stemmed from an overreaching federal bureaucracy that was bent on practicing “a grand experiment” at Westchester’s expense resulting in legislation that was introduced in Congress that attempts to rewrite the rules nationwide for the construction of affordable housing.
However, at no time has Westchester or any of its communities practiced exclusionary zoning, the county executive emphatically stated. If there were discriminatory practices, Astorino said he would have confronted the offenders.
“Now to be clear, there’s no room for discrimination in Westchester,” Astorino said. “I support affordable housing. We’ll continue to build affordable housing, we know it’s needed and we will continue to do that. That’s not what this was about.”
Last year, the federal housing monitor required the county to hire a consultant to complete an acceptable AI. The White Plains-based engineering and planning firm VHB was retained to make that submission. In April, VHB’s first AI submission was rejected by HUD, marking the tenth rejection. Astorino said the final version that was accepted was virtually the same as the previous submission.
The latest figures from the county reveal that permits for 799 units of new affordable housing have been issued, with 427 of those units built and occupied. About two-thirds of those residences are rentals while the remainder are owned by their inhabitants, Astorino said. Permits for another 100 units are in the pipeline, he added.
Various county officials, including several members of the Board of Legislators, and elected officials from communities around the county, gathered with Astorino at the county building in White Plains for Tuesday’s announcement.
Board of Legislators Chairman Michael Kaplowitz (D-Somers), who has been alternately critical of both HUD and Astorino over the handling of the settlement, said he had urged cooperation to reach an agreement and see the much-needed housing built.
“This issue highlighted our philosophical differences and drew some sharp elbows as we debated the best ways to work with HUD in implementing the settlement,” Kaplowitz said, “but at the end of this process, I and many of my colleagues have worked with the county executive on the long and often arduous task of fulfilling our obligations under the settlement.”
Minority Leader John Testa (R-Peekskill) said his home community and other racially diverse municipalities that were not mentioned in the settlement lost valuable Community Development Block Grants (CDBG). However, it was crucial for the county to defend its communities, which had done nothing wrong, he said.
“I’m proud to say we stood by the county executive when some of our colleagues thought we should stand by the federal government,” Testa said. “We fought back tooth and nail all the way through the process and we should have been here many years ago, many AIs ago.”
Astorino said the price to comply with the settlement has been high. The county has spent more than $80 million, about $30 million over the $51.6 million it was required to spend, in addition to another $1.1 million on advertising and marketing of the units. Total public spending, including state and federal funds to build the units, has reached about $233 million, he said.
Furthermore, the county lost about $18 million in CDBG money, which HUD used to try and coerce the county into going beyond the settlement, Astorino said.
“It wasn’t easy. Believe me, there were many people who wanted us to fail in Westchester, including some elected officials, even on the Board of Legislators,” Astorino said.
Following the announcement, Kaplowitz said the actual figure for the lost CDBG funds is about $24.5 million. He also said the county must also make sure that the federal judge who has presided over the litany of issues related to the settlement is satisfied.
Leaders of the Board of Legislators’ Democratic caucus derided Astorino Tuesday afternoon for being responsible for the hefty legal bills and the loss of federal grant money despite HUD’s sudden decision. Despite Astorino’s insistence that the change of administrations in Washington played no role in the result, Majority Leader Catherine Borgia (D-Ossining) argued otherwise.
“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,” Majority Leader Catherine Borgia (D-Ossining) said. “The difference now is that this attempt comes on the heels of Lynne Patton’s, a former Eric Trump Foundation event planner, appointment as HUD Region II administrator.”
Legislator Kenneth Jenkins (D-Yonkers), who is also a candidate for county executive and hopes to face Astorino in the fall, also was suspicious.
“This man has no shame,” Jenkins said of the county executive. “After wasting time and valuable taxpayers’ money for years, he calls this a victory? It’s embarrassing. Our Democratic Majority Leader, Catherine Borgia said it right when she said the ‘11th time is a charm.’”