County Executive Robert P. Astorino said Thursday that he would vigorously oppose a plan to rewrite the 2009 federal affordable housing settlement that, if not stopped, would give the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) unprecedented power to dismantle local zoning.
Astorino's fundamental objection to the plan by federal monitor James E. Johnson is that it would strip local municipalities of their "Home Rule" authority – guaranteed under the New York State Constitution – and open them up to never ending investigations by the federal government.
Making matters worse, municipalities would be virtually defenseless against any challenges to local zoning because the plan would allow HUD to "replace the zoning analysis" done by the county (which after eight reviews found no evidence of exclusionary zoning based on race or ethnicity) with its own reports and conclusions.
"This plan puts local control of zoning in extreme jeopardy," Astorino said. "If not stopped, HUD will hit the daily double: Washington bureaucrats get control of local zoning and local elected officials and communities are left defenseless."
Astorino said the loss of local control is spelled out for all to see in the methodology HUD will use to review the 31 Westchester communities involved in the housing settlement.
- HUD's analysis will be conducted by the federal monitor who was hired by HUD and can only be fired by HUD.
- The actual work on the analysis will be done by the monitor's team from Pratt Institute. These are the same consultants that produced the error-riddled "report cards" for the 31 communities in 2013.
In addition, the Pratt consultants have already opened up a dialogue with the Anti-Discrimination Center (ADC), the group that brought the original case against the county but withdrew after being paid $8 million and has since been turned down twice by the courts from re-entering the settlement. As recently as a May 30th letter to the monitor, ADC reiterated that it will not be satisfied with anything less than the court ordered dismantling of local zoning.
"It's hard to imagine a worse scenario," Astorino said. "Halfway into a contract, in which the county is ahead of schedule in meetings its obligations, HUD would get to impose new terms, all highly unfavorable to the county and its municipalities, and none of which are in the original settlement. For example, Washington bureaucrats would now make local zoning decisions based on a 'hypothetical municipality,' whatever that means, developed by the monitor's consultants."
County Attorney Robert Meehan has also filed an objection with the monitor saying that Johnson has no legal authority to rewrite the terms of the settlement on his own. "The settlement cannot be amended without the consent of the parties," Meehan says in his June 5th letter to the monitor, quoting paragraph 53 of the agreement.
Under the terms of the 2009 settlement, the authority for reviewing local zoning rests solely with the county under its responsibility to conduct an Analysis of Impediments (AI). That power cannot be taken away on the basis of "letters" between the Monitor and Board of Legislators Chairman Michael Kaplowitz.
Astorino has sent a letter to the mayors and supervisors of the 31 communities involved in the settlement explaining how they would be harmed by changes to the 2009 agreement.
The leverage HUD has been using to expand the terms of the settlement is its withholding of Community Development Block Grants (CDBG). The county has sued HUD, contending the agency has no right to withhold money, most of which goes to communities that are not involved in the settlement. The case is now before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.
As a way to get money to these communities immediately, Astorino proposed in his May 1st State of the County Address that the county start its own block grant program. His proposal would get $5 million to the communities stiffed by HUD; remove HUD's leverage for dismantling local zoning; and do both at a cost of $1 a year for each household in Westchester.
"It makes no sense to give up control of local zoning," Astorino said. "We can replace the CDBG money on our own and do it cheaply. More important, even if we give HUD everything it wants, there's no guarantee the federal government will release the funds promised to Westchester."
With respect to the county's progress in meeting the terms of the settlement, all 31 communities have identified potential sites with the following results:
- 406 units have financing in place; (450 is benchmark for this year).
- 401 units have building permits; (surpasses this year's benchmark of 350).
- 173 units are occupied; (almost 25 percent of the total goal).
With respect to zoning, the county has submitted eight separate AI's to HUD. These documents have been comprehensive, covering all 853 zoning districts in Westchester and involving both Berenson and Huntington tests for exclusionary zoning in all 31 settlement communities. The most recent AI was 236 pages and included a 74-page Action Plan, supported by 1,500 pages of additional documents. HUD has routinely accepted AI's with much less detail and Action Plans of only a couple of pages with little or no discussion of zoning.
HUD's basis for rejecting the AI's is that it refuses to accept the county's data- driven, fact-based conclusions that found no evidence of exclusionary zoning based on race or ethnicity. The county's conclusions are supported by separate reports by Pace University Land Use Law Center, as well as the monitor. Without a finding of exclusionary zoning, HUD has no basis to tell local communities to dismantle their local zoning.