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The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has rejected Westchester's latest analysis of how local zoning codes impede the development of fair housing

Tax Watch columnist David McKay Wilson explores how President Donald Trump's HUD department issued a rejection to Westchester County's fair housing legal battle.

 

The Trump administration has delivered Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino a stunning setback in his attempt to resolve the protracted settlement of Westchester’s federal fair housing lawsuit.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development on April 10 rejected Westchester’s latest analysis of how local zoning codes can serve as roadblocks to fair housing choices in the county.

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It marks the 10th time HUD has rejected Westchester’s analysis of impediments, called an AI. It’s a requirement for the receipt of federal housing funds and a crucial part of the False Claims Act action filed in 2006 by the Anti-Discrimination Center of Metro New York.

A federal court ruling in February 2009 found that Westchester had “utterly failed” to meet its obligations to “affirmatively further fair housing,” and that certifications that it had done so were “false or fraudulent.” Conducting an acceptable AI was among those obligations.

Such an analysis was mandated by the 2009 settlement. Due on Dec. 8, 2009, the analysis was to lay out a plan to identify and overcome barriers to fair housing, with progress on that action plan to unfold over the ensuing seven years.

That was 2,689 days ago.

HUD found on April 10 that Westchester had still not complied.

“HUD finds that the AI Supplement is unacceptable and that the AI, therefore, does not satisfy the settlement,” wrote Regional Director Jay Golden in a letter to Deputy County Executive Kevin Plunkett.

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On Tuesday, Plunkett told Tax Watch that the county had asked HUD to reconsider its latest rejection. Plunkett said the analysis, conducted by VHB Engineering, found that Westchester had no exclusionary zoning — as have the nine previous submissions that HUD rejected.

“It’s something that Rob Astorino has been saying from the beginning,” said Plunkett.

What HUD found

In the report, HUD specifically found that Westchester had failed to acknowledge areas of segregation, appropriately compare communities and present strategies to overcome impediments.

In Larchmont, for example, the report found that 90 percent of the village is zoned for single-family housing and has an African-American population of less than 1 percent.

“Yet the county fails to analyze whether zoning is a factor,” Golden wrote.

In Pound Ridge, the county study found that the population is 94 percent white in a community whose housing stock is 99 percent single-family. The study concluded that, because the town didn’t have a concentration of African-American or Hispanic residents, then local zoning was not a barrier to a diverse community.

“This conclusion is highly suspect,” Golden wrote. “The concentration of white residents and the impact of limited multi-family housing in Pound Ridge should have been addressed.”

The Westchester study concluded  that, in Sleepy Hollow, there was no correlation between zoning and the concentration of African-American and Hispanic residents.

But Golden found that the study showed that multifamily/two-family zones were 8.5 percent African-American and 57 percent Hispanic. Meanwhile, single-family zones were less than 1 percent African-American and 10 percent Hispanic.

But VHB planners, in an April 12 letter to HUD, said the federal government had erred in its review.

"It is not reasonable for HUD to insist on its own universal conclusions regardless of all the data and analysis conducted by numerous third-party zoning and land-use consultants, and educational institutions."

The Trump factor 

The HUD action comes as the Astorino administration has worked to put the case behind it while he seeks a third term. When Republican Donald Trump was elected president, Astorino said that having Republicans in charge in Washington could help Westchester finally end federal oversight in the housing case.

Opposition to the federal housing case has been an important part of Astorino’s political message, as he railed against what he contended was federal intrusion into home rule over zoning. County Legislator Catherine Parker, D-Rye, doubts Astorino will ever change.

“The county executive has dug in his heels, and his narrative isn’t going to change,” she said. “He can’t go against his brand.”

Legislator Jim Maisano, R-New Rochelle, called on the Astorino administration to work with HUD to find common ground.

“This issue is crying out for a compromise,” he said.

Craig Gurian, the Anti-Discrimination Center’s executive director, said Westchester’s failure to create an acceptable AI was an important part of the settlement, which aimed to help overcome segregation and housing discrimination the county.

“The county is playing the same old game of alternative facts,” said Gurian. “It’s a fantasy version of Westchester.”

The One Westchester Campaign

The settlement also required Westchester to fund an education campaign to further fair housing in the county. That campaign was relaunched this week with advertisements in local weekly newspapers.

Westchester’s failure to conduct an acceptable education campaign was disturbing to the presiding judge in the case, U.S. District Judge Denise Cote, 11 months ago. The county hired Thompson & Bender, a Briarcliff Manor public-relations firm, to develop the plan under a $100,000 contract in June.

An advertisement that ran this week in Westchester Rising, a free weekly, pictured eight smiling women and five smiling men, of various ethnic and racial backgrounds. Its headline read: “Westchester — One Community Many Cultures."

Its tagline read: “Diversity strengthens Westchester. It attracts talented people, stimulates creative thinking and promotes tolerance and understanding.”

The advertisement did not mention housing.

At Tuesday's Hudson Valley Affordable Housing Summit at Pace Law School in White Plains, housing leaders said the advertisement did little to further fair housing.

“I don’t know how this ad does that,” said Joan Arnold, executive director of Allied Community Enterprises.

Dennis Hanratty, executive director of Mount Vernon United Tenants, called the ad an “embarrassment.”

“It’s a feel-good picture of people smiling,” he said.

Plunkett, however, was optimistic that the campaign, coordinated by county Communications Director Ned McCormack, would be approved by the federal court.

"Ned McCormack’s team puts together the community-outreach program." Plunkett said. "We are very confident that this is appropriate."

Correction: In the video, the number of times HUD has rejected Westchester County's analysis of impediments should say 10 times.

David McKay Wilson is an opinion columnist for The Journal News/lohud.com and writes the weekly Tax Watch column.