Westchester Hopes Fair Housing Case Winding Down

John Jordan | December 2016

Dr. Ben Carson

Astorino Welcomes Carson as HUD Secretary

WHITE PLAINS—In an exclusive interview, Westchester County Executive Robert Astorino told Real Estate In-Depth that the county fully expects to meet its court-mandate to have 750 affordable housing units either built or approved by the end of this month.

County Executive Robert Astorino
County Executive Robert Astorino

County Executive Astorino also said that the election of Republication Donald Trump and his subsequent nomination of Dr. Ben Carson as secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, could foster a less contentious relationship between the county and HUD in 2017. The strained relationship between HUD and Westchester County stems over conflicting issues surrounding the $51.6-milllion settlement reached in 2009 of a fair housing lawsuit brought by the Anti-Discrimination Center of Metro New York filed against Westchester County in 2006. In its lawsuit, the Anti-Discrimination Center charged that Westchester had received $50 million in federal housing and community development funding by “falsely certifying that the county had affirmatively furthered fair housing.”

Since the settlement was reached in 2009, Westchester County and HUD have been at odds over a number of issues including marketing of the fair housing units and the county’s role in eliminating cases of what HUD had determined as exclusionary zoning. In addition to HUD, the county has also had its run-ins with court-appointed Housing Monitor James Johnson, who resigned from the post in August when he announced he was running for the Democratic nomination for Governor of New Jersey.

When asked by Real Estate In-Depth if Dr. Carson’s expected confirmation as HUD Secretary could perhaps end the continued legal battles between the federal housing agency and the county, Astorino responded, “The good news is that we are fulfilling our obligations. We are winding this down and by the end of this month, as we are obligated to do, we feel very strongly that we will reach the milestones for financing and building permits, which is the central theme of this settlement.”

He continued, “Even with the bumps in the road and the obstacles thrown in our way by the federal government, we have been able to stick to our plan which was to work cooperatively with our communities and that is why we are going to get this thing done, not through the litigation and coercion that the federal government wanted us to do. I think our strategy is paying off.”

Astorino does believe that with Dr. Carson as head of the agency, the relationship will improve. “I think Dr. Carson will be a breath of fresh air,” Astorino said. “He understands affordable housing in inner cities. He has lived in affordable housing. He has stated that and he is trying to lift communities up and not pit communities against each other. Certainly not pit the federal government against local communities and so I think we are going to have a much better, cooperative relationship with the federal government.”

A representative of Dr. Ben Carson told Real Estate In-Depth that the HUD Secretary nominee is currently not available for comment.

At press time, the legal battles between the county and HUD continue with both parties scheduled to appear before U.S. District Court Judge Denise Cote on Dec. 7 in connection with the county’s efforts to market the fair and affordable housing program.

As of Dec. 6, Astorino said a total of 794 fair and affordable units had secured financing and 689 units had obtained building permits, leaving 61 units that must be granted building permits to reach the 750-unit threshold.

He added that there were 90 outstanding building permit applications pending and Astorino said the county believes that by Dec. 31 the county will meet and likely exceed the 750-unit mandate. Once that has been achieved, Astorino said that because the county is working on issues surrounding the marketing of the affordable housing units, the county believes that the matter should be “winding down” and that the county should be found in compliance with the settlement.

Astorino said that he and Dr. Carson spoke when the then Republican Presidential candidate was the keynote speaker at the Westchester County Republican Committee Dinner in April 2015. He said that he and Dr. Carson spoke for about 20 minutes at that time and discussed a myriad of issues affecting Westchester County, including the fair housing settlement. Astorino added that he had similar talks with now President-Elect Trump. Astorino said he had in-depth discussions with then candidate Trump in June 2016 on the fair housing settlement and has talked with the President-elect several times since the November election, but those recent talks did not center on the fair housing case, he noted.

“Secretary Carson will look at this fairly and I certainly intend to sit down with him sooner rather than later to get him up to speed on where the county has come from since the settlement in 2009 and that we think we are basically done with this,” Astorino told the newspaper.

When asked how President-elect Trump viewed the HUD-Westchester County court battles, Astorino responded, “He certainly agrees that this is not the way the federal government should behave in the fact that they should be cooperating and working together with state and local governments and not at war with them.”

Astorino also said that he believes he can work with President Trump and HUD Secretary Carson in 2017 in either revamping or scrapping entirely HUD’s controversial Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing Rule, which Astorino has claimed gives HUD too much power over local zoning.

 

John Jordan
Editor, Real Estate In-Depth