SEPTEMBER 27, 2013

Time to take hysteria out of housing argument

Frankly, we’re not fans of the 2009 affordable housing settlement. We think it’s unnecessary bureaucratic intervention and poor social engineering. We disagree with many of its requirements, like marketing the units to nonresidents of the county and prohibiting preferences for police, firefighters and teachers. It doesn’t address the housing needs of county residents. It’s an unnecessary taxpayer expense in a sour economy. And, we resent that it brands us all as racists and bigots.

It’s clear that county executive Rob Astorino and his administration don’t like it either. But like it or not, the county must comply with settlement requirements or risk losing federal funds. HUD has already withheld about $7 million in community block development grant funding, and officials are quite clear about the reason why: Recipients of federal funds must obey federal law. Surely, the county executive can’t disagree with that. Unfortunately, the loss of those funds hits those who can afford it least, the poor.

As if that weren’t bad enough, a kind of creeping hysteria is overtaking some of our communities. Already the housing settlement has shattered the relative calm of board meetings in towns like Pound Ridge, Lewisboro and North Salem.

In Pound Ridge, some neighbors feel pitted against others as they protest a proposed one-quarter mile affordable housing zone they say would “herd” low-income or minority residents. The settlement has created deep divides between the county Legislature and the county executive. In the race for our local District 2 in the county Legislature, it is “the” contested issue that Republican Andrea Rendo is seeking to use to unseat incumbent Peter Harckham.

A community forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Westchester and the White Plains league on Monday, Sept. 16, in White Plains, confirmed that HUD requires the county to build 750 units of affordable housing — and no more — in 31 predominantly white municipalities by 2016, as specified in the consent decree.

No number has been more bandied about than the 750 units the county is required to make available as per terms of the settlement. Is it up to, equal to, more than … and, if so, how many?

State Assemblyman Steve Katz, a Republican representing the 99th District, posed the question to the panel point-blank: “Is there any discrepancy between the 750 specified in the settlement and what HUD expects Westchester to do?”

Bryan Greene, the acting HUD assistant secretary for fair housing, said, “The county is required to build 750 units.”

Mirza Orriols, the acting regional HUD administrator, said, “HUD never said to build 10,000 units. That number came from a study made by the county. It was the county that said it needed 10,000 units. HUD is now working with the county and the monitor to comply with the consent decree.”

Mary Mahon, senior assistant to the county executive, clarified that the 10,000 figure comes from a 2003 Rutgers study — which also formulated an allocation plan — and was never endorsed by the Board of Legislators or enacted by executive order. “It is simply a committee report,” she said, “and never mandated by Westchester County.”

Federal monitor James Johnson said, “No report requires 10,000 units.”

Also put to rest were fears that HUD would dismantle and eliminate local zoning. The monitor concluded that most municipal zoning regulations were nonexclusionary and not responsible for the lack of affordable housing. 

Mr. Johnson said the settlement required a “hard look” at the regulations, applying the standards of Berenson, a state Court of Appeals case, and Huntington, a federal case. Berenson requires a municipality to address regional needs for affordable housing; Huntington determines whether regulations are racially motivated.

“Four communities were exemplary,” Mr. Johnson said, “and seven had room for improvement.”

Changes in Pound Ridge — one of the seven towns with room for improvement — to open the entire community to fair and affordable housing will not lead to tents and shanties. While the one-quarter mile plan to put housing near Scotts Corners is flawed, enhancing fair and affordable housing can only benefit the town in the long run.

We think it’s time for county officials to stop demonizing HUD. Mr. Astorino’s predecessor Andy Spano didn’t take the settlement very seriously, and one of his aides was quoted as calling it a “joke” before the deal was imposed. Nowadays Mr. Astorino isn’t taking it seriously either, except to obfuscate its requirements, as a recent appearance on the Fox News “It’s Your Land” program to accuse the Obama administration of social engineering demonstrates. In that appearance, a graphic states, erroneously, that Westchester will be “forced to build 10,768 units by the year 2015.” Do we really want to be in the middle of a political talk-show war?

The fact is that HUD requires 750 units of affordable housing in Westchester County. Period.

This was reiterated at the Board of Legislators last week, where, according to Peter Harckham in an email, “The monitor met with the Board of Legislators for 90 minutes. He took pains twice to reiterate that neither he, nor HUD, has the ability to increase the number of units in the settlement beyond 750. They only have the ability to decrease that number.”

This is a doable goal, and the fact is that despite rhetoric, the Astorino administration, along with efforts from the Legislature, are making good progress in many communities throughout the county. Pound Ridge is part of an important discussion on zoning laws versus affordable housing. No one is seeking to tear it down, and Pound Ridge will never be Yonkers.

It may be tempting to succumb to the hysteria that marks any political issue dealing with race, income and inequality. Instead, let’s work to create housing for citizens of all races, at a price that families can afford.

Once again, we call on county officials to stop the posturing and get to work.

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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