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In Westchester, Progress on Housing and the Specter of Another Fight

The long, complicated, contentious fight over housing discrimination in New York’s Westchester County moved a step forward this week. But it’s far from over.

It took numerous courtroom battles, a contempt of court threat and the withholding of millions in federal dollars, but Westchester County finally has a law banning discrimination against those who pay their rent with federal assistance.

The Board of Legislators for the suburban New York county voted 15-2 Monday night to pass the legislation required by a 2009 settlement with the federal government over Westchester’s failures to comply with fair housing laws.

The Board’s vote ends one critical scuffle in an escalating conflict chronicled last fall by ProPublica that began three years ago this month when Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino vetoed legislation that would have banned housing discrimination based on income.

The federal government, which negotiated the 2009 settlement with the county, contended that Astorino’s veto violated the terms of the deal. When the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development began withholding millions in federal grants over the veto and other issues, Astorino turned to the courts.

He lost.

Still, Astorino persisted in his efforts to scuttle the ban – one that made it unlawful for landlords to deny housing to potential renters simply because they received financial assistance from the federal government.

In April, the U.S. Attorney’s Office turned up the heat when it threatened to seek a contempt of court ruling against the county if Astorino did not agree to reintroduce and sign the law.

Facing large fines against both him and the county, Astorino submitted the legislation a few days later.

Still, Astorino’s fire wasn’t doused. As the board contemplated the law, Astorino asked last week for funding to work on an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. The board tabled his request and then passed the legislation days later.

The federal government won’t have long to relish its victory. The battle with Astorino will now center on requirements that the county dismantle zoning that makes it difficult for African Americans and Latinos to find housing in white areas.

And the zoning issue, which is largely seen as having the greatest potential to integrate housing in the highly segregated county, could well prove to be the greater conflict.

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