Republican County Executive Rob Astorino says Westchester has exceeded the benchmark for developing affordable housing. The announcement came just a few days before a deadline stemming from a 2009 housing settlement with the federal government. WAMC’s Hudson Valley Bureau Chief Allison Dunne reports.
Astorino says Westchester has met a December 31 deadline to have financing and building permits in place for 750 units of affordable housing in 31 mostly white communities.
“The county has surpassed that requirement with 790 units so far, 40 more than required,” Astorino says. “There’s also an additional 100 units that are in the pipeline and they’re expected to come online sometime in 2017.”
He says this occurred thanks to cooperation from local communities. The settlement agreement was reached under former Democratic County Executive Andrew Spano. However, two issues remain. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development needs to sign off on an analysis of issues that could be impediments to building fair housing in Westchester. This is known as the Analysis of Impediments, or AI, which is in its ninth iteration, with a consulting group, and due out in early January. Astorino had been at loggerheads with the federal government during the process, alleging federal overreach.
“HUD wanted us to reach a conclusion that was just not warranted by the evidence,” Astorino says. “We found no evidence, none, that our zoning was exclusionary on the basis of race.”
The second remaining issue is that the county must enhance its marketing and outreach efforts tied to the settlement. New print, radio and social media advertisements are being developed to run in 2017 and the county hired a consultant to expand its “One Community Campaign,” which promotes the benefits of diversity and affordable housing. Astorino says the county has spent $1 million on marketing and education, $600,000 above the required amount. In fact, tallying up the costs overall, the county has spent about $30 million in addition to the $51.6 million required under the terms of the settlement. Catherine Borgia is Westchester County Board of Legislators Democratic Majority Leader.
“What I’d like to see is less emphasis on fighting the federal government in whatever form and more emphasis on restoring the brain trust in Westchester County to make sure that we can provide resources to municipalities so that they can do smart planning for the future,” says Borgia.
Borgia, who represents some of the communities in the settlement agreement, including the Town of Cortlandt, Village of Briarcliff Manor and Town of Ossining, where she served as supervisor, applauds having exceeded the benchmark. Yet she says nearing the end of the settlement is an opportunity to conduct a Housing Needs Assessment to determine the types of housing to be built to meet the changing needs of the county.
“One of the things that I see as a very dire need in Westchester County is the opportunity to start doing some future planning,” says Borgia. “I think the settlement has taken up a lot of our time and energy. Rob has used it as sort of a political cudgel for a long time and, as a result, the actual planning, future planning, and sort of smart planning needs that we should have been doing in the county over these years have been neglected.”
Astorino says the county’s success in achieving the affordable housing benchmark puts to bed the false narrative that Westchester, which is the fourth most diverse county in New York, does not support affordable housing or welcome diversity. He says the key challenge to affordable housing is economics, not diversity.
Astorino clashed with the court-appointed monitor who was assigned to oversee implementation of the settlement agreement. The monitor resigned in August. So far, no other monitor has been appointed and Astorino would like to keep it this way, continuing to work just with HUD and the Justice Department. However:
“We feel very strongly that if a new monitor is appointed, and we see no reason why one should be, that that choice should be that of the incoming secretary of HUD, Dr. Ben Carson, and not Julian Castro who is on his way out.”
Astorino says he has not spoken with Dr. Carson recently but was told he could speak with the incoming HUD secretary if Carson is confirmed. Astorino says he did discuss the housing matter with Carson about a year ago and says their views align. Astorino says he also spoke with President-elect Donald Trump about the issue in June.
“So it’s not like they are unfamiliar with this, and all we want is a fair shake,” says Astorino. “And, quite frankly, we never thought we were getting that with the current administration.”
He believes similar treatment would have continued under a Hillary Clinton administration.
“I’d made myself known to her with regard to this issue,” says Astorino.”And we would love and welcome her help on this, too. She should be our biggest cheerleader and advocate of the kind of community that she chooses to live in.”
In the summer of 2015, Astorino held a press conference on the Chappaqua street where the Clintons live, drawing attention to his allegations of federal overreach in the settlement agreement.