July 15, 2011 -- Westchester County Executive Robert P. Astorino has called on Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Shaun Donovan to get directly involved in ending the impasse created by his department's "unprecedented bureaucratic overreaching" and "unwarranted trampling of local zoning rights" with respect to the implementation of the 2009 affordable housing settlement with the federal government.
In a meeting scheduled for later this month in Washington, Astorino said he would be asking Donovan to retract demands by HUD, which by its own admission in a May 13 letter to the county "go beyond the four corners of the settlement." Astorino said the demands are economically and legally impossible to meet and threaten to derail the agreement, which calls for the county to develop 750 units of fair and affordable housing in 31 mostly white communities over a seven-year period. The settlement with HUD was approved by former County Executive Andrew Spano and the Board of Legislators in 2009.
(See PDF version of Astorino's presentation)
"It's time for HUD to become accountable for its actions," said Astorino. "Making demands on the county that have no basis in the law in general or the settlement in particular and that go way beyond anything any community in the United States has ever been asked to do is a counter productive prescription for failure. Westchester County is a year ahead of schedule in getting the units developed, but that progress will come to a halt if HUD continues to make demands that constitute unprecedented bureaucratic overreaching by the federal government and an unwarranted trampling of local zoning rights."
Astorino stressed that the county has made significant progress when it comes to actually getting the housing built. Right now, the county has 164 units with approval by the federal monitor. Of these, 154 units have all their financing in place and 107 have building permits in place. Under the settlement, the county needed only to have financing in place for 100 units and building permits for 50 units by the end of 2011. The county has an additional 102 units in the pipeline for obtaining approvals.
The impasse with HUD is over the federal housing agency's acceptance of the county's Analysis of Impediments, or AI, which HUD has now rejected five times. The AI is typically a routine document that accompanies requests for federal funding and outlines obstacles to the development of fair and affordable housing choice. Prior to the settlement, HUD had never rejected an AI by the county.
"In the case of Westchester's AI, HUD is using the document to renegotiate the settlement and that's unacceptable," said Astorino. "HUD is demanding things it has no right to ask for, that go beyond the settlement, its own guidelines, state and federal law, as well as common sense and basic economics."
Astorino cited the following areas of overreach:
Zoning: Westchester County does not control local zoning, a fact HUD knows full well and was mentioned repeatedly by former County Executive Spano at the Aug. 10, 2009 press conference with HUD announcing the terms of the settlement. "HUD is now demanding that the county dismantle local zoning," Astorino said. "I will not allow that to happen."
HUD is calling for the county to challenge the zoning practices of local municipalities and "list the steps that the county will take if the municipalities do not enact the changes within three months of the county's notification." If a municipality fails to make a change, HUD wants the county to take a number of actions including suspension of funds and litigation.
This type of request by HUD is unprecedented in an AI and is far beyond what is in the settlement, and for HUD to make it shows a complete ignorance that New York is a home rule state.
Moreover, the county has consistently maintained that the goals of the settlement will only be achieved by working cooperatively with local communities to build consensus and that threats of litigation will only prove counterproductive. To date, the county has held more than 300 meetings with local communities, developers, housing advocates and government agencies since January 2010.
Costs: Without any justification in the settlement, HUD is arbitrarily calling for half of the 750 units to have three bedrooms, a demand that would force the county to run out of money well before all 750 units could be built.
- The county has committed $51.6 million to provide subsidies to build 750 units in 31 eligible communities in seven years.
- That works out to $68,800 a unit in county funded subsidy.
- Three bedroom units will require an estimated subsidy of $150,000 each.
- 375 three-bedroom units (half of 750) will cost over $56 million, exceeding county funding and leaving no money for other units.
- Total projected costs with three-bedroom units is $94.3 million.
Integration: The settlement requires the county to identify and analyze impediments to fair housing choice based on race; which it has done. In the settlement, Westchester County denied all of the allegations by the federal government and the Anti-Discrimination Center, which brought the initial lawsuit, relating to racial discrimination and segregation and there was never a finding to contradict the county's position. HUD is ignoring the language of the settlement and is now attempting to force the county to go beyond the mutual agreements in the settlement, which it signed, by demanding the county make findings of racial discrimination and segregation, and identify acts and patterns of racial discrimination.
Of critical importance to note is that the 2010 census shows Westchester County to be one of the most diverse places in the United States.
- Westchester is the fourth most diverse county in New York, behind Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx, tied with Manhattan, and ahead of Staten Island. Manhattan has a lower percentage of blacks than Westchester (12.9 percent vs. 14.6 percent) and slightly higher percentage of Hispanics (25.4 percent vs. 21.8 percent).
- If Westchester were a state, it would be the 7th most diverse in terms of Hispanic representation.
- If Westchester were a state, it would be the 14th most diverse in the US in terms of black representation.
Source of Income: The settlement's only requirement on source of income was to "promote, through the County Executive, legislation currently before the Board of Legislators to ban 'source of income' discrimination in housing." The county's position is that it fully complied with this requirement in 2009 when former County Executive Spano promoted the source of income legislation that was before the Board of Legislators at that time.
One immediate consequence of the latest action is that HUD has stopped funding CDBG (Community Development Block Grant) projects in local communities in the third year of a three-year funding cycle. This strong-armed tactic by HUD will cause the county to review and potentially terminate 18 jobs, which rely on the CDBG grant money for funding. More than $6 million in funding is now at risk. Ironically, most of the people whose jobs are now at risk work on implementing the housing settlement.
"The bottom line is that HUD is asking us to spend money that we don't have, pick fights with our own municipalities, do things we have no power to do and in fact may violate the New York State Constitution, local zoning and a host of environmental laws," Astorino said. "This is the kind of Washington behavior that angers ordinary citizens. There is simply no justification for it. I am hopeful that by meeting with Secretary Donovan, we can return the focus to getting affordable housing built in Westchester."