The Record-Review – The official newspaper of Bedford and Pound Ridge, New York


DECEMBER 9, 2011

Section 8 denials are senseless; zoning has merit

The Westchester County housing settlement is a lawyer’s dream and a politician’s nightmare. Currently, County Executive Rob Astorino is holding out on two areas, which have earned him challenges from the federal government’s Department of Housing and Urban Development and James Johnson, the federal housing monitor. One, source of income requirements demanded by the federal government, makes sense. The allegation that northern Westchester towns are using “exclusionary zoning” does not.

The county is required to build 750 units of affordable housing in 31 designated communities. The county is ahead of schedule with 206 approved units in the pipeline and 186 with financing, well ahead of the required 100 units required by the end of November.

The county could wind up in court over two issues. The first area of concern is what the monitor and HUD perceive as a failure to correct deficiencies regarding the promotion of source of income legislation that would bar discriminating against New York State Section 8 program funds. Those funds provide rental assistance and home ownership options to extremely low and low-income households. The second issue is that the county has done nothing to overcome “exclusionary zoning practices” by towns in Westchester.

The Section 8 Housing Assistance Payments program is a rent subsidy program that assists eligible low-income families in obtaining housing. Families receive a rental subsidy, known as a housing assistance payment, equal to the difference between their share of the rent and the rent charged by the owner.

The position taken by Mr. Astorino is that property owners have the right to control how their property is rented.

It just doesn’t make sense for Mr. Astorino to insist that those receiving public assistance in the form of housing vouchers would be unable, at a landlord’s whim, to use Section 8 funds to pay rent in Westchester. 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. While yet to be definitively legislated in Westchester County, we see no reason Mr. Astorino should concern himself about permitting any legal source of income. 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. 

New approach must merge zoning, environmental goals

The monitor wants the county to be willing to force municipalities, especially those with better than average school systems, to loosen zoning laws that could prohibit fair and affordable housing in municipalities where it would not be permitted now.

Mr. Astorino has stated that the New York State Constitution guarantees home rule, the power of local governments to engage in policymaking concerning local matters including the power to set zoning laws. He said he does not believe he has the power to force compliance or sue municipalities with their own tax dollars.

Mr. Astorino is right in fighting this. Zoning laws are not intended to mandate human rights — they are guided by prudent governance and environmental stewardship. Why should municipalities be punished for not breaking a law? In many cases the environmental protections are mandated by the county, state or even federal government. If there is clear evidence that the town is discriminating against tenants or buyers, then take action.

The monitor and HUD aren’t even sure what exclusionary zoning is. “If any zoning ordinance has an exclusionary impact, it should, at a minimum, be examined, and hopefully, revised, in an effort to eliminate that impact,” Adam Glantz, spokesperson for HUD, said last week.

That is in effect explaining “exclusionary” by saying that it is, uh, exclusionary. Anyone who has been following the complex and multilayered process of planning and zoning decisions in Westchester, particularly our own corridor in the northeast corner of the county, knows that a myriad of factors influence zoning decisions: city mandates, state mandates, stormwater regulations, acreage requirements, sewage rules, wetlands requirements — most to maintain water quality and hence the health of local residents. Since northern Westchester is also in the watershed for New York City, the water quality and health of city residents are also at stake.

HUD will first have to prove that the zoning regulation willfully and intentionally violates the rights of citizens to obtain fair housing. It would be insane to throw out hundreds of thousands of hours of board activity, judicial judgments, decisions and counterdecisions that have such a fundamental impact on our environmental and social realities. Compelling and specific incidents that may be accurately labeled “exclusionary” must be evaluated on an individal basis, and addressed in the proper municipal forum.

But not in this settlement agreement.

We knew from the start that this settlement process would not be easy.

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