As a follow up to the victory in federal court, Westchester County Executive Robert P. Astorino last week called on the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to immediately release the $7 million in affordable housing money that it has withheld in an attempt to force Westchester to take actions that go beyond the terms of the 2009 housing settlement.
Astorino said that the U.S. magistrate's ruling last week clearly showed that Westchester County has been complying with the settlement and that it was time for HUD to start undoing the damage caused by its unilateral decision in May to withhold previously approved housing funds. Read Astorino's presentation.
The county was forced to lay off five workers, abolish 10 jobs and curtail funds for various community organizations and many local governments as a result of HUD's action to withhold what are called Community Development Block Grants (CDBG).
"HUD's preemptive move to try to punish the county before the court had ruled in the case was unconscionable," said Astorino. "The primary purpose of the money was to advance the progress of the settlement, so HUD was only hurting the people it claims to help. HUD's actions were purely an attempt to get the county to do things that were not in the settlement. I took a principled stand to say HUD was overreaching. The court agreed. Now it is time for HUD to release the money and put its energies toward actually helping to build affordable housing."
On Friday, Westchester County won a major victory in court when the federal magistrate in the case ruled that the monitor selected by HUD "erred in concluding that the County Executive violated the settlement."
Astorino said he is sending a letter to HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan asking him to release the money immediately and he is also calling on the entire Westchester congressional delegation to intervene if the money is not released promptly.
"Going up against HUD has been like David against Goliath," said Astorino. "But with the ruling by the magistrate, there is no good reason for HUD to withhold affordable housing money that it had promised to the county and our communities three years ago. It is time for the Congressional delegation to step up and be counted on the side of Westchester's residents."
HUD and the monitor had argued that the 2009 settlement compelled Astorino to sign source of income legislation that would have required property owners to accept government vouchers as rental payments, as well as the regulatory obligations that go with them.
Astorino challenged the federal government's contention, saying that the settlement only called for the county executive to "promote" the source of income legislation "currently before the Board of Legislators" back in 2009 and that former County Executive Andrew Spano, who approved the settlement, met that obligation at that time.
U.S. Magistrate Gabriel Gorenstein sided with Astorino, saying: "We conclude that the parties did not intend the County's duty to 'promote' obligated the County Executive to sign source-of-income legislation passed by the BOL."
The magistrate also said that Astorino was within his rights to veto source of income legislation in July 2010 and supported that decision with case law, stating: "Courts must abide by the express terms of a consent decree and may not impose supplementary obligations on the parties even to fulfill the purposes of the decree more effectively."
Gorenstein's opinion then goes on to state: "Accordingly, we conclude that the able Monitor erred in concluding that the County Executive violated the Settlement by vetoing the source-of income legislation enacted by the BOL."
Astorino vetoed the source of income legislation that came before him 2010 calling it "hopelessly flawed."
"My decision was based on my belief that the legislation was a violation of basic property rights," Astorino said. "Landlords who want to accept federal vouchers are free to do so, but it should not be compelled. This was a governmental intrusion that had the unintended consequence of actually working against the settlement because it would have made housing more expensive and less available."
With respect to the zoning portion of the case, the magistrate ruled that the monitor is entitled to information with respect to zoning practices. The county believes this requirement was met on Feb. 29 (after the court papers were filed) when it submitted to the monitor its extensive review of 43 municipal zoning ordinances covering 853 zoning districts.
The county is awaiting HUD's response and will continue to work cooperatively with the monitor and HUD going forth, Astorino said.
Despite HUD's legal challenges, the county is ahead of schedule with respect to the settlement's fundamental requirement of developing 750 units of fair and affordable housing over seven years in 31 mainly white communities. The agreement includes benchmarks for financing and obtaining building permits that must be in place by the end of each year. It also requires the county to market the housing in a way to primarily reach African Americans and Hispanics not only in Westchester but also in New York City and surrounding counties. The county faces severe financial penalties if it fails to meet certain benchmarks.
As of this month, the county has 206 housing units approved by the federal housing monitor, of which 196 have all financing in place and 108 units have building permits in place. Under the terms of the settlement with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the county was only required to have 100 units with financing and 50 units with building permits by the end of 2011. The settlement calls for 200 units with financing and 125 with building permits by the end of 2012. The county expects to meet these benchmarks this spring, almost a year ahead of schedule.