WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. (AP) — The entire U.S. government seems to be lined up against Westchester County these days.
The county just north of New York City, home to actors, ballplayers, Clintons and Kennedys, is mired in a housing dispute that encompasses race, taxes, zoning and other sensitive suburban issues.
The Justice Department, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, a federal judge and a federal monitor have all been scolding Westchester, and especially its county executive, over the implementation of a court order that settled a 2009 housing segregation lawsuit.
It’s a battle that could have national implications. When the settlement was signed, Ron Sims, HUD’s deputy secretary at the time, said Westchester “can serve as a model for building strong, inclusive, sustainable communities in suburban areas across the entire United States.”
While the county is on schedule for fulfilling one part of the order — building hundreds of affordable homes — officials say it’s lagging on measures that would fight future discrimination, including an analysis of how local zoning might be prejudicial.
Late Friday, the U.S. attorney’s office filed a motion asking a federal judge to compel Westchester to cooperate more fully.
The government’s court papers said the county had consistently failed to comply with requests for information, which was “preventing the parties from reaching the ultimate goal of the settlement — the development of fair and affordable housing.”
HUD is withholding $12 million in grants for local programs — including sidewalk repairs, a van for seniors and aid for homeless families, just to name a few — and threatening fines and contempt citations.
“The Fair Housing Act prohibits race and other characteristics from being used as a basis to deny people housing,” HUD Assistant Secretary John Trasvina said in a recent interview. “What prompted the litigation in the first place, and what the county continues to fail to do, is to address the impact of race on housing choice.”
The man taking the brunt of the criticism, County Executive Rob Astorino, isn’t giving an inch and predicts the battle will have drastic repercussions.
“If a federal department, in this case HUD, can dictate to local officials what they will and won’t do, we’re careening toward a different country,” Astorino said in a recent interview.
“The last thing we want,” he added, “is five years from now, for people to say, ‘What happened? Why is this neighborhood completely inside-out now? Why do I have a six-story government housing project or building or townhomes in my neighborhood when it wasn’t zoned for that when I moved in here?’”
Westchester, a county of just under a million people directly north of New York City, has struggling cities like Mount Vernon and Yonkers. It’s 22 percent Hispanic and 13 percent black.
But it is best known for its old-line bedroom suburbs, portrayed in John Cheever stories and “Mad Men” episodes, with leafy, heavily white villages and hamlets like Scarsdale, Bronxville and Chappaqua, where former President Bill Clinton and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton live.
Craig Gurian, executive director of the Anti-Discrimination Center, which brought the original lawsuit, said the county’s housing pattern resulted from “explicit, intentional discrimination” by landlords, homeowners and the real estate industry after World War II.
But the way Astorino sees it, “You can live where you can afford to live. I can’t live on the block in Chappaqua where the Clintons live. I don’t have the economic means.”
The lawsuit was settled before Astorino, a surprise Republican winner in the increasingly Democratic county, took office at the start of 2010.
Gurian’s group had alleged that for several years, the county failed to meet the requirements of accepting funds from HUD, including analyzing obstacles to fair housing. The county settled after the Justice Department intervened.
Democrat Andrew Spano, then the county executive, agreed that Westchester would build or acquire 750 units of affordable housing over the next seven years — mostly in its whitest towns and villages — and make sure they were marketed to non-whites in the region, including New York City.
With 72 units already occupied and 207 units with financing in place, the county is meeting its construction deadlines. But the settlement also called for the county executive to promote a bill that would prohibit landlords from rejecting tenants who use Section 8 government subsidies to help pay their rent.
“The source of income of an individual is often used to deny them housing,” Trasvina said. “Quite frankly, it’s often used as a proxy for race or national origin.”
Astorino vetoed it instead, noting that Section 8 is a voluntary program.
“The federal government should not and cannot force an individual to give up their personal and property rights,” Astorino said.
He claimed his predecessor had fulfilled the “promote” requirement. But Judge Denise Cote, who approved the original settlement, called Astorino’s veto “an unambiguous breach” of the agreement.
Astorino is appealing.
HUD and the federal monitor, attorney James E. Johnson, also say Westchester has failed to properly analyze barriers to fair housing, including zoning rules, as required in the settlement. And it hasn’t submitted any plan for fighting such barriers.
The county’s analysis asserted that there are no barriers because every municipality’s zoning has some provision for multifamily housing. That analysis, however, didn’t get into the racial or ethnic composition of zoning districts, which Trasvina called “the heart of the matter.”
He said even if multifamily housing is permitted, strict limits on it can affect fair housing.
Johnson demanded a new analysis but rejected that one, too. In papers supporting the motion filed Friday, he said the county’s report “failed to provide a legal basis, facts or analysis that would adequately support its conclusion that exclusionary zoning did not exist.”
Ned McCormack, a spokesman for Astorino, said Friday night that the motion was “another example of HUD trying to bully the county.”
Though no other HUD dispute is quite like Westchester’s, the agency has comparable cases working in Marin County, Calif., and St. Bernard’s Parish, La.
The agency and the monitor have also said that some of Westchester’s housing, while approved toward the 750 requirement, amounts to “missed opportunities” to desegregate. A low-rise 22-unit complex under construction in mostly-white Rye is right on the border of Port Chester, a heavily Hispanic village, and somewhat cut off from Rye’s better neighborhoods by highways.
The county notes that its budget — $51.6 million is the amount in the settlement — is limited and land is expensive.
At a site in Cortlandt, which will eventually include a clubhouse with exercise and meeting rooms, 69 tenants have moved in. Curtis Hernandez, 21, who shares a new two-bedroom apartment with his mother, said their new home costs less and is an improvement from their apartment in Peekskill.
Peekskill, which is 36 percent white, is not part of the housing program; Cortlandt is 76 percent white.
Applicants have to meet income limits and enter a lottery. There are no racial quotas. Hernandez said there are a few white tenants in the Cortlandt buildings.
“It’s good to have all the cultures together,” he said. “I think the program makes sense.”
Ken Jenkins, the Democratic leader of the Westchester Legislature and an Astorino critic, says he’s concerned about the possibility of heavy fines.
“If people think their taxes are out of control now, wait ’til you get a $500 million bill,” said Jenkins, who is black and may challenge Astorino next year.
Astorino, who’s being talked about as a potential challenger to Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo, said that if he loses his court battle, he will comply.
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