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County Executive: HUD Has a "Utopian Vision" for Westchester

Out of a meeting with the head of HUD, Robert Astorino describes deep differences between the county and the feds over the still-unsettled fair housing settlement.

Talks today between Westchester County Executive Robert Astorino and Shaun Donovan, secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, revealed deep disagreements over aspects of the county's fair housing settlement.

This fight is over neighborhood integration, and it pits some of the most well-known and wealthy communities in the United States against the feds. Scarsdale and Chappaqua are among the most upscale communities just north of New York City in Westchester, which is struggling with HUD over court-ordered fair and affordable housing.

"HUD in its vision for utopia can't use Westchester as its national model," Astorino said afterward. "I'm not going to sue municipalities and demand they rip up their zoning codes."

The county got into the situation because officials had looked the other way while communities eager to receive federal block-grant funds for sidewalks and other civic improvements fudged the demographics on their applications to include their more diverse neighborhoods—even if the projects were elsewhere.

Caught by an anti-bias group which sued, the county decided to settle instead of paying back the money, and affordable housing became the currency.

County officials agreed to oversee the construction of 750 units in the whitest, richest communities, getting local zoning changed if necessary through a variety of incentives and threats.

Now HUD move beyond the "four corners" of the settlement with an eye to integrating the least diverse school districts racially and ethnically. That, HUD said, meant that fully half the affordable housing had to be 3-bedroom units to accommodate children who would go to local schools.  

The change would double the cost to taxpayers to almost $100 million, Astorino said. "That's completely unacceptable."

Plus, 70 percent of Westchester residents do not live in nuclear families with children, according to the Congress for the New Urbanism.

In addition, HUD wants officials to state in writing that racial segregation is the cause for demographic imbalance in its most expensive, exclusive communities. 

The Anti-Discrimination Center, which brought the federal suit in 2006, the underlying issue of segregation in its plan—and that helps municipalities perpetuate it. Center officials have argued that Westchester's community patterns were formed over a long time through explicit racial exclusion.

But sticker price—not discrimination—is the issue, Astorino said. Westchester is the fourth most diverse county in New York, and just as in Manhattan, "people can live anywhere they want if they can afford it....Should we be going into Chinatown and dragging other ethnicities into housing [there] because of HUD's utopian view?"

HUD's demand that the county recruit minority residents from outside Westchester is unnecessary because change has been occurring naturally, Astorino said. "Westchester in the new Census has had a 53 percent increase in the Hispanic and black population."

Affordable housing has been a tough issue in Westchester for decades. Its leafy suburban communities, oft catergorized as "bucolic," woke up in the 1980s to the departure of their teachers, firefighters, police officers and public works employees after yet another steep rise in housing prices.

Blue-ribbon commissions and county officials created plan after plan. Several communities devised their own programs: Briarcliff Manor and Yorktown, for example, OK'd higher-density developments where builders set aside a few units parceled out under community rules to eligible residents or employees.

But the issue of affordability has remained intractable in both the exurban towns with two-acre zoning and the older, settled villages along Long Island Sound.

Not a surprise in a county where the median sale price for a single family home was $685,000 in the second quarter of 2011, according to the Westchester Putnam Association of Realtors.

Astorino said HUD officials acknowledged the county is about a year ahead of schedule in carrying out the basic plan even as the deal is still being hammered out. They also agreed to look at the possibility of releasing grant money they've been withholding from diverse communities such as Mount Kisco and Port Chester, which are non-eligible under the settlement. 

Astorino also had meetings set with Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and congresswomen Nita Lowey and Nan Hayworth. A conference call for county and federal officials is being scheduled for next week. 

Bob Zahm July 29, 2011 at 03:37 AM
@Kevin - so you believe people should not seek to maximize profit or be allowed to maximize profit because the result is "unfair". Well, if you remove the ability and right for people to maximize profit, you'll pretty quickly kill any hope of economic growth, new job creation, etc. I believe being able to live where I want to balanced by what I can afford to pay is fair. Having the gov't (through taxation) attempt to make more places "affordable" will only succeed in reducing the value of the neighboring properties. It will most certainly NOT create a sustainable, valuable community. It will, however, drive out the very people whose hard work made the "nice" neighborhoods what they are today.
Kevin July 29, 2011 at 01:32 PM
@Bob, I didn't say that we should stop developers from maximizing their profit. But we do need to develop our communities in a way that accomodates some housing that is affordable. This can and has been done without taxes. And there are many communities that not upscale, wealthy enclaves that are "nice". I agree that building a multifamily building that includes affordable housing in the middle of a single-family neighborhood is undesirable. However, having a county filled towns that are unaffordable to most is not sustainable.
Kevin July 29, 2011 at 01:46 PM
I think there is a complete lack of what affordable housing can be in general and the concept is being confused with what the County is dealing with as a result of this lawsuit. Simply put, we can make our communities more affordable by adjusting zoning (in some areas, not the whole town) to allow smaller lot sizes, two-family houses and higher, apartments, etc. We can seek out developers who may want to build more modest homes. This allows housing for a diverse population, included recent college grads, retired folks on limited incomes, and those who are not fortunate enough to work on Wall Street. This can all be done without a handout. So to all those people who feel like they worked so hard and did this and that, this concept should not offend you. Enough already. We're all very proud of you.
Meredith Lesly July 29, 2011 at 02:01 PM
Kevin, excellent post. When teachers, policemen, and college grads, especially those buying their first home, can afford to live in the community they serve in or grew up in, the entire community benefits, as does helping long-time residents who are now seniors and living on limited incomes.
Lanning Taliaferro July 29, 2011 at 03:24 PM
For those who've been contributing to the substance of the discussion, thank you.

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