WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. – Westchester County Executive Robert Astorino said a federal magistrate’s ruling that Westchester hadn’t violated the 2009 housing settlement proved the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) had prematurely punished the county by freezing $7 million in grant money. The Republican insisted that HUD release the funding Monday and called on Westchester’s federal lawmakers for support.
“HUD’s preemptive motive to punish the county before our day in court was unconscionable. HUD’s motive seems to be very clear: force the county to go beyond the settlement. We refuse to be intimidated by that,” Astorino said of a funding loss that forced the county to lay off five employees. “With the court’s favorable ruling, it is time for the secretary of HUD Mr. Shaun Donovan to release the money back to the county and its communities.”
U.S. Magistrate Gabriel Gorenstein ruled Friday that Astorino didn’t breach the agreement by vetoing legislation that forbids landlords from discriminating against potential tenants based on the source of their income. While Gorenstein said the settlement couldn’t obligate elected officials to sign bills into law, he indicated that the monitor “is free to reexamine the question of whether the county breached” its duty to promote source-of-income legislation “in other ways.”
James Johnson, the monitor appointed to supervise the settlement’s implementation, received Gorenstein’s backing on his request that Westchester specify what zoning will be determined exclusionary and how Westchester will combat opposition from municipalities refusing to alter such ordinances, should the need arise. Astorino’s team said it fulfilled Johnson’s requests when sending a zoning analysis to the monitor on Feb. 29. However, Chairperson of the county board of legislators Kenneth Jenkins (D-Yonkers) said lawmakers didn’t see such a strategy while reviewing the analysis.
After being accused of accepting federal housing funds without completing required studies of minority housing patterns, Westchester hammered out a settlement with the federal government in 2009. The county agreed to spend $51.6 million over seven years to build 750 units of affordable housing in predominately white communities. Per the agreement, Westchester must market these homes to minorities living outside of the county, educate residents about the benefits of integrated communities and amend zoning ordinances that prevent the construction of affordable homes.
A report required of the county, called the analysis of impediments to fair housing, has been continuously rejected by HUD. Once the report was deemed insufficient for the fifth time, HUD yanked $7 million in funding from the county.
Both HUD and Astorino’s administration can appeal the magistrate’s decision to another judiciary official. A HUD spokesperson declined to comment on the matter Monday, but confirmed that staff was studying the decision.
Astorino’s assessment was described as short-sighted by Jenkins, who said HUD froze funding because Westchester failed to detail how it would overcome exclusionary zoning in its analysis of impediments.
“There’s no doing handstands and cheering and saying this is a major victory, now give us our money,” said Jenkins. “The main dispute that’s holding up our money has not been resolved. We need to work with those folks to do that.”
Jenkins also criticized the administration for focusing on the 750 units when the crux of the settlement was about making changes that would accelerate integration.
“There’s no race to build 750 units. It’s really about trying to reestablish a strategy and infrastructure for how communities would include affordable housing through inclusionary zoning techniques and through making sure they market as broadly as possible to make Westchester reflect the diversity of our state and our country,” he said.