APRIL 12, 2013

Astorino gambles with your money

We don’t need to tell county exec Rob Astorino “I told you so” over his decision to fight HUD’s requirement to enact source of income legislation, which would have limited the use of state and government funds to pay for fair and affordable housing.  The so-called “source of income” legislation challenge ended last week when appellate judge Denise Cote denied the county’s suit to overturn the decision.

It doesn’t make sense for Mr. Astorino to allow landlords to discriminate on the basis of a tenant or buyer’s source of income. “This may or may not be constitutional, as court challenges in New York City and elsewhere have shown, where such discrimination is prohibited by law,” we wrote in 2011. “If he were to prohibit all sources of government assistance, he would also be cutting off those paying for housing with Social Security or federal disability funds or veterans or Federal Housing Administration loans.”

Not only did the county make a faulty decision in deciding to bring the case to the courts in the first place, it wasted further taxpayer dollars on this ill-considered appeal.

The consequences could be staggering. At issue is not only the millions in housing funds that are at risk — including $7.4 million from HUD that may revert to the U.S. Treasury on Sept. 30 — but so are additional housing funds and even money due the county for damages from Hurricane Sandy.

And while the county’s consent decree began with the Spano administration, Judge Cote reminded the county that “the consent decree continues to bind successive elected county officials,” including Mr. Astorino.

Along with striking Mr. Astorino’s source-of-income legislation veto, towns throughout Westchester are now being asked to identify “exclusionary zoning” practices that hinder fair and affordable housing by Westchester’s municipalities.

In court last week, Judge Cote also scolded the county for failing to promote the settlement as determined under the court’s consent decree. “Virtually all of the terms of the consent decree require future and continuing action by the county government,” she said.

The county has kicked the can down the road for another two years. Maybe now is the time for Mr. Astorino to work with HUD and Westchester County officials on the difficult and complex challenge of making fair and affordable housing rules jibe to meet the terms of the agreement.

Not to say that everything is bleak and the county is doomed to a sinkhole of ongoing legal costs, fear-mongering and politicized rhetoric. Yes, there are some who would sacrifice important environmental protections for abstract and shifting demographics that change with every census. And, even if Mr. Astorino could be accused of digging in his heels for political aggrandizement, his counterparts on the board of legislators will not win this year’s Good Neighbor award. Some representatives of HUD, and Craig Gurian of the nonprofit Anti-Discrimination Council, the entity that originated the suit against the county, are vigorous partisans. The Westchester County legislators involved are the same ones who pulled smoke alarms and banged on desks to avoid a vote on this year’s budget. As a result, there is more heat around this issue than a fire in Yonkers.

It is time for all parties to focus on expanding the housing pool in Westchester to all applicants. Federal housing monitor James Johnson’s latest move solicits information directly from the towns and their officials in an effort to determine whether exclusionary zoning is prevalent in Westchester communities. Which one will trump the other? We could end up pitting environmental protections against fair and affordable housing.

It is imperative that a thorough examination be done of what the housing monitor calls the “analysis of impediments” in order to identify exclusionary zoning if or where it exists. Mr. Astorino should not lead by crafting acceptable source-of-income legislation and making every effort to avoid the financial abyss that could come from delay.

“Furthering Fair & Affordable Housing in Northern Westchester: Taking a Closer Look at the Settlement & Beyond” event is set for May 1 at 7 p.m. at the Bedford Town Hall in Bedford Hills.

Read more local coverage of your hometown in this week’s issue of the The Record-Review. Newsstand copies are available at several locations listed above, or subscribe today for convenient home delivery.

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