JULY 19, 2013

Housing settlement is recipe for inaction

“Swatting away more Astorino nonsense,” is the subject line of a recent email from Peter Harckham, our Westchester County legislator.

“Mr. Astorino has mounted an unprecedented campaign of public deception about Westchester’s housing obligations — posing as our protector against an imaginary threat of his own creation,” said Noam Bramson, the mayor of New Rochelle and the Democratic challenger to Mr. Astorino, in a recent op-ed piece. “Here is his fictional account: the department of Housing and Urban Development has increased Westchester’s housing requirement from 750 units to nearly 11,000, at a taxpayer cost of $1 billion, while also demanding the elimination of all local zoning codes to permit high-rise construction in every neighborhood. Fortunately, this scary-sounding description is completely untrue.”

Yet Mr. Astorino has plenty of evidence to back his claim that HUD and the federal government could be asking for far more than 750 units. Mr. Astorino was quoting from a letter sent to his office by Vincent Hom, HUD’s director of community planning and development. Mr. Hom was referring to a 2004 county-sponsored Rutgers University report that foresees a need for 11,000 fair and affordable units. Any municipality identified as having exclusionary zoning practices may risk future HUD or federal funds.

And this number may have more relevance than Democratic legislators want to believe, as more than one federal administrator sees them as legally binding. Whether or not this is a “suggestion” or a legal mandate is far from clear.

“The county’s study recognized 10,768 affordable units as the regional need,” wrote Maurice Jones, another HUD representative, in a letter to county legislator Ken Jenkins.

Housing monitor James Johnson suggested in a letter earlier this year that Pound Ridge alone could be required to build 172 additional fair and affordable housing units. “The unadopted affordable housing allocation plan produced in 2005 by the county’s planning department called for 184 affordable housing units in Pound Ridge, of which only 12 have been built in the interim, leaving a balance of 172 units,” Mr. Johnson wrote.

HUD’s Adam Glantz set a different standard in an email last week to reporter Don Heppner. Mr. Glantz references as “inaccurate” the statement of a Bedford official who declared “HUD insists only on accepting new construction in the settlement.”

“Please be apprised that the settlement does not require that all units be new construction,” said Mr. Glantz. “In fact, the settlement allows for a limited number of existing units which may be ‘counted’ toward the county’s settlement obligation. Up to 25 percent of the total number of affordable AFFH units … may be achieved through the acquisition of existing housing units … I hope that this fact clarifies any false impressions your readers may have gained from reading the article and that you will be kind enough to make this correction in your next edition.”

While we appreciate Mr. Glantz’s comments, we would appreciate a unified and consistent response from Mr. Glantz, Mr. Hom and Mr. Johnson, among other interlocutors, in response to questions posed by both the county executive and the board of legislators.

It is worrisome that HUD and the housing monitor are unable to agree in simple language on whether the 750 is a satisfactory benchmark, a lower limit, or moot because of much higher housing requirements. Are the almost-11,000 units referenced a “need” or a “law”? HUD officials seem at odds even among themselves. In addition, HUD and the monitor must issue consistent statements on whether or not existing structures will be counted toward the affordable stock. Finally, what formula is at work in determining how and when an existing property — not new construction — may be used to satisfy fair housing requirements?

The housing settlement looms as the big issue of the November county election. As it approaches, claims on both sides are going to get wilder and shriller. It gives politicians something to get vocal about in an election year — a hot-button issue that will wake up the fringes — and pretty much guarantees further inaction when it comes to pursuing realistic goals of fair and affordable housing in Westchester.


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