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Westchester County Could Lose Millions for Fair Housing Failures

The Department of Housing and Urban Development has given Westchester County one more month to comply with requirements of a fair housing settlement or risk losing $7.4 million in grants.

The Cottage Landings affordable housing project under construction in Rye, N.Y., in June 2012, a part of a 2009 fair housing settlement. The Department of Housing and Urban Development has given Westchester County one more month to comply with requirements of the fair housing settlement or risk losing $7.4 million in grants. (Jim Fitzgerald/AP Photo)

After more than three years of clashing with the federal government, Westchester County may finally have to pay a price for its failures to comply with a residential desegregation court order: $7.4 million.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development sent County Executive Rob Astorino notice this week that he has one month to come up with a plan to comply with three major requirements of a settlement reached in 2009 or Westchester will permanently lose millions in grants from the Housing and Urban Development agency in Washington. Those requirements involve both a ban on discrimination based on income and ending exclusionary zoning.

"In light of the fact that the County has been on notice about these deficiencies for years, HUD cannot at this point simply accept general promises of future performance," Vincent Hom, a regional HUD administrator, wrote in a letter to Astorino. He said that the "County's conduct has left us with no choice but to initiate this action."

The actual stripping of funds – they have been frozen for years -- would be an unprecedented move for an agency long criticized for its failures to enforce federal housing law. But Mirza Orriols, acting HUD regional administrator for New York and New Jersey, said the warning about the funding was not the result of HUD being "fed up" with the county's lack of compliance with a nearly 4-year-old court order. Rather, the agency acted out of concern that it would lose the funds to the U.S. Treasury if they are not spent by September and needs time to reallocate them.

"We're not in the business of recapturing funds. We are in the business of providing our grantees...the funding to provide services," Orriols said Wednesday. "We are hoping that we can get all the documents and that funds can be released for Westchester County."

Critics say the agency's decision to not pursue a more aggressive remedy — a contempt order that could expose the county to huge financial penalties — is consistent with its long history of inaction around civil rights issues. A federal judge, they note, ruled more than a year ago that the county is in "unambiguous breach" of the settlement meant to end decades of residential segregation in the county.

"None of this has anything to do with enforcing the consent decree," said Craig Gurian, whose non-profit Anti-Discrimination Center brought the lawsuit that ended in the landmark settlement. "What's unprecedented is that there is a civil rights federal court order in place and the government is choosing not to enforce it."

And surprisingly, the pressure for HUD to act more assertively to gain compliance with the court order isn't coming just from advocates. One of Westchester County's top elected officials said it's time for a more aggressive enforcement of the settlement.

"The county executive believes he doesn't have to follow the law," Westchester County Chairman Kenneth Jenkins said.

Orriols said HUD is ready to help Astorino meet the terms of the settlement. But its warning about revoking the millions in grants did little to change Astorino's stance.

"The County's position is that it is in full compliance," Ned McCormack, the county's communications director, wrote in a news release. "HUD's most recent letter of March 25th is just one more example of the federal government trying to bully Westchester to do things that go far beyond the terms of the settlement and dismantle local zoning."

Astorino's spokesperson declined an interview request with the county executive. Orriols said the county has not responded directly to HUD since receiving the letter.

A ProPublica investigation published late last year showed that despite the county being out of compliance on several key settlement provisions, the federal government has been reluctant to press for consequences.

The landmark settlement was reached after a federal judge ruled that Westchester County defrauded the government when it accepted HUD dollars tied to residential integration but took actions that either ignored racial considerations or directly contributed to segregation.

The settlement required the county to produce a HUD-approved plan to reduce barriers to fair housing, called an analysis of impediments. HUD has rejected the county's analysis several times, which is what led to HUD's initial freezing of the grants.

Under the settlement, the county also had to identify exclusionary zoning in its whitest municipalities and come up with strategies — including legal action if necessary — to challenge that zoning. The zoning issue is at the heart of the settlement, because it would change the very structure of communities that have passed development rules that have worked to keep people of color out.

Astorino has repeatedly pushed back, saying that despite the mandate in the settlement, he refuses to dismantle local zoning.

As a result, the county produced several zoning analyses that conclude not a single incident of exclusionary zoning exists in the county. Both HUD and the federal monitor charged with overseeing the settlement have repeatedly rejected this conclusion, most recently in a March 13 letter.

The monitor, James Johnson, commissioned an outside group to study the county's zoning. He said he is sharing that report with the Westchester municipalities and then will determine steps to move the county towards compliance.

The settlement also required Westchester to promote and pass a law barring discrimination against people who pay their rent with vouchers, called source-of-income legislation. The Board of Legislators passed the legislation only to have Astorino veto it.

When the county and the federal government ended up in court over the issue, federal judge Denise Cote ruled last May that Westchester was in "unambiguous breach" of the settlement. Still, Astorino refused to reintroduce the law, saying he would await the outcome of an appeal to the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

In August, the U.S. Attorney's Office said it would move to hold Westchester in contempt over the source-of-income issue, marking the first and only time the federal government has ever publicly threatened contempt charges against the county for any of what it regards as the county's continuing settlement breaches.

Astorino hastily responded, releasing a letter to Johnson saying "he was left with no choice" but to ask the board of legislators to reintroduce the legislation. He did so in a two-line letter to the board.

The Democratically controlled board, however, has sparred with Republican Astorino on a number of issues, including the settlement. The board declined to reintroduce the legislation.

Jenkins said legislators spent more than two years working to get the legislation Astorino vetoed passed and were not going to put something forth that he would veto once again. Some have accused Jenkins and others Democrats on the board of not doing their part to truly implement the settlement.

The settlement was unpopular with many of the liberal county's voters and contributed to the ouster of the Democrat county executive just a few months after he signed it. As a consequence, according to critics of the settlement's handling, the current board has largely been content with letting Astorino battle it out with the federal government.

Jenkins is seeking Astorino's job in the next election but denies that the he is playing politics.

"As a person that's an advocate for fair and affordable housing, it is very frustrating to me," he said. "If the county executive has something in mind, he needs to start with it. My goal is to get source-of-income law passed and not to be constantly fighting in court."

Astorino has refused to come up with his own legislation. He said he is waiting for the appellate court to rule, even though both Judge Cote and the appellate court denied his request for a stay.

Nearly a year after a federal judge ordered the county to reintroduce the income discrimination law, nothing has happened. Though the federal government announced it might take away funds, it has thus far declined to ask the court to enforce its own order.

"The government has continually seen the actual enforcement of all of the provisions of the consent decree as too explosive," Gurian said. "And so it hasn't had the backbone to do it. It has instead been more interested in window-dressing solutions."

Orriols said that HUD continues to work with the monitor and the Department of Justice to figure out the best way to realize the full aims of the settlement. She would not say what it would take for HUD to seek court intervention.

"Let's see what happens with the end of the month," she said.

Just note on journalistic sourcing—you can’t just say “Critics say….”  You have to name a few—so the phrasing would be something like “Critics John Soto and Robin Lee, among others, say .... “

Otherwise, it sounds as if you don’t really have any critics except the few already mentioned in the article ... it’s a common way to get around not really having original sources but it’s a poor practise.

Hmm isn’t this the same situation that created the housing bubble?  I will never understand why liberals and our government continue an agenda with horrible policies all under the guise of equality.  No wonder we are in the mess we are in.  Idiots!!!!

Nikole Hannah-Jones

March 29, 2013, 9:48 a.m.

Critics is plural, meaning more than one. I named two critics in the story.They were two of the four people quoted in the piece. Should I have listed every person that I spoke to, whether I quoted them or not?

Thank you for your comment and your reporting tips.

I’m not sure how dismantling Westchester County’s zoning ordinances would help to eliminate concentrated poverty.  Houston, Texas has never had zoning.  And yet we are constantly looked at askance by HUD for issues pertaining to concentrated poverty.  Even if they do eliminate zoning in Westchester County, developers will still face pushback from neighbors if they try to builld low income or public housing in upscale neighborhoods.  Elected officials will lose their jobs.  You think Westchester’s lawsuit was ugly - you haven’t seen anything yet.
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I wish HUD would stop these senseless attacks on cities and reevaluate how they plan to get socio-economically and racially diverse communities.  The -right- way to do it is to improve the quality of life in disadvantaged neighborhoods, to the point that the middle class will move back.  It’s not easy - you have to hire more police officers and get them walking beats.  You have to convince new businesses to move in.  Parks need to be refurbished.  Schools have to be overhauled.  Low-income housing money has to be used to rehabilitate substandard housing and spur redevelopment.  But in places where they’ve done this (the South Bronx for example), it has been met with loud applause.

On thinking about this, I can understand HUD’s reluctance to go for penalties, because I think the article makes clear that they don’t have a plan (or maybe the authority) to use that money.

Smart would be to build a plan in advance and leave it to Westchester to implement or use the fine to implement it despite their foot-dragging.

Lanche, read back in the series.  This is about people who are steered to minority (and poor) communities despite having sufficient money to move in next door to Clintons and Cuomos.  Westchester, as with every county, has a responsibility to push such bigots out of the industry.

John - I have followed these articles.  They did at one point note research which suggested that minorities tend to live in poorer neighborhoods than whites who are equal on the socio economic scale.  But the issue in Westchester is different.  In Westchester, as in many places around the Country, HUD is attempting to force the County to spread out its low-income and public housing.  The idea is that the very poor do best when they are in wealthy, or at least middle class neighborhoods.  (Never mind that it’s a lot more nuanced than that).
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The problem is that HUD’s approach effectively turns its back on poor neighborhoods.  You’ve heard of white flight and black flight - HUD wants poverty flight.  What’s left in the poor neighborhoods is even deeper poverty and even less hope.  HUD has no programs that I am aware of to help address this issue.

Alexander Roberts

April 1, 2013, 8:13 p.m.

Excellent work.  Absent from the debate is the reality that exclusionary zoning thwarts the free market which would build affordable housing in the eligible municipalities if allowed to do so with multifamily zoning.  You can’t build affordable housing on two acre lots and it’s an abuse of the police power of zoning to require this exclusively to keep workforce housing out.  The Census shows that young workers are leaving the county and commercial vacancies are soaring because of the imbalance between supply and demand.

What’s that feeling I have right now?  Why, it’s schadenfreude of course!!  One of the most wealthy left wing counties in the nation, that voted Obama at almost 62%, is fighting integration tooth and nail and being rebuked by the court and Feds for it.  This should be a MUCH bigger story about the hypocrisy of wealthy leftists that don’t much care for the policies they vote for.  This is how a privileged aristocracy acts.

Before singing the praise of the free market to provide affordable housing without zoning, take a look at Houston, Texas (the biggest city in the US to lack a comprehensive zoning ordinance).  It is true that the free market, if left to its own devices, will provide affordable housing.  But Houston shows that, without zoning a lot of that affordable housing will be confined to a few neighborhoods.  Worse, the free market will often allow affordable housing to fall into disrepair, because as any slum lord will tell you,  a lack of maintenance keeps it affordable.

ZAW, I think we mostly agree.  We both seem to think that integration is a good intermediate goal and HUD is floundering in trying to accomplish it in…let’s call them “odd” ways.

That was sort of my point, indirect as it was.  If HUD wants things to change, outline a model plan that people can support or reject.  If no counter-proposal or progress comes to light, then take the fine and implement the plan.

The thing is, while you clearly have experience with how things happened in Houston (and I absolutely do not—I know little beyond being able to roughly find Texas on a map), we don’t necessarily know what their plan for Westchester (a very different space with a different history and population) would be.

Maybe they have a hammer and everything looks like a nail, but maybe not.  And a group like HUD isn’t going to make any progress without providing direction.

For what little it’s worth, by the way, my experience on Long Island (on both sides of the tracks, and just opposite the city from Westchester) is that spreading the lower-income pockets around the area works fairly well.  I can imagine ways in which it could go catastrophically wrong, but out here, I think it has worked where it’s been genuinely tried.

You’re right, though, that you need to be careful.  Where it has failed, contracts were awarded to developers, who basically took some former toxic site and turned it into a modern ghetto.  Poof, affordable housing.  Unless you need, like, medical attention or food or transportation.  Oh, and there’s so many units, we need to get them their own school, which completely misses the point of integration, but hey, it solves some problem…

I think 7.4M is NOTHING compared to what the damage will be done to the County. I can’t even believe it’s that cheap. I’d definately pay for that and just cheat on my taxes to make up the difference.

This exclusion zoning debate is total rubbish. The cause of concentrations of wealth and poverty is the linking of schools with location. A school choice program and deregulation of the educational system would completely change the game.

Right now, you MUST live in a good area to get into a good school.

I also haven’t even touched the subject of union rules driving up the cost of construction, or green regulations that take land off the market, or the cost of public transportation skyrocketing due to unions.

Liberals also choose particular factors while totally excluding others.

This article is part of an ongoing investigation:
Segregation Now

Segregation Now: Investigating America's Racial Divide

Investigating America’s racial divide in education, housing and beyond.

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