By CHRIS EBERHART
Hillary Clinton’s home in Chappaqua, N.Y. was the latest battleground in the housing war between the federal government and Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino, a Republican.
On July 21, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara’s office said Westchester County should be held in contempt of court and be forced to pay monthly fines of $60,000 for violating the terms of a 2009 affordable housing settlement.
As part of the settlement, which was signed by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, HUD, and former County Executive Andy Spano, a Democrat, Westchester had to build 750 units of affordable housing in the county over a seven-year period, complete a source of income legislation—which bans discrimination against potential renters and home buyers based on their source of income—and complete an analysis of impediments, which is a review of the barriers affecting the development of affordable housing.
Astorino, who took over the county executive’s office in 2010 after defeating Spano, has strongly contested the settlement from the outset and said the federal government is overreaching and threatening to dismantle local zoning.
Until recently, the analysis of impediments was the main source of contention between the two sides. The eight Astorino administration-completed analyses of impediments, all of which claim Westchester doesn’t have exclusionary zoning, were denied by HUD, and the county executive refused to submit the analyses completed by the federal monitor Jim Johnson, who is overseeing implementation of the settlement, that said otherwise.
Now the two sides are fighting over the financing benchmark put in place by the settlement, specifically involving a development in Chappaqua, Clinton’s hometown, and whether the units should count toward the end of 2014 financing benchmark of 450 units.
The housing monitor said in a May 8, 2015 report that the 28-unit Chappaqua train station development shouldn’t count toward the 450-unit benchmark because the funding was not in place by the end of 2014, and the project’s completion is shrouded in doubt because of litigation and heavy scrutiny by the community and New Castle officials. But the county says the funding is in place and the project is moving forward, so the units should count, which would give the county financing for 454 units.
David Kennedy, assistant U.S. attorney, backed the monitor’s report and said the county should establish an escrow account in the amount of $1.65 million, pending the development of the 24-unit shortfall under the 2009 affordable housing settlement. The money would be returned if the county meets its next financing benchmark of 600 units by the end of 2015. If it doesn’t, the county would lose $68,800 for each unit it’s short.
Astorino counter-punched by knocking on Clinton’s door to put her on the spot and ask her in front of a large press contingent if she, as a presumptive Democratic nominee for president, thought her hometown of Chappaqua was discriminatory and if she supports the current administration’s “radical housing policies.”
“It would give many of her neighbors in town and throughout the county some comfort to hear her respond ‘no’ and ‘no,’” Astorino said.
Although the former secretary of state and U.S. senator wasn’t home, Astorino left his contact information with one of her aides and continued with his press conference on her front steps.
“The federal government’s assault on our local communities in Westchester is dumbfounding, shocking and counterproductive,” Astorino said. “Here’s how it works: HUD decides whether your neighborhood meets the quotas the agency believes represent the proper balance of race, income, education and other demographic features. If the zip code doesn’t measure up, HUD then prescribes corrective measures, which essentially come down to running roughshod over local zoning so HUD can socially engineer the character of your community to bring it in line with its quotas.”
Westchester County Board of Legislators Chairman Mike Kaplowitz, a Yorktown Democrat who has been leading an unprecedented legislative effort to act on behalf of the county, which is typically done by the county executive, in the housing matter, said he has been critical of the county executive in the past, particularly about not filing an analysis of impediments that would be deemed acceptable to HUD.
But Kaplowitz said he’s standing with Astorino on this particular issue.
The chairman said there’s no reason to be held in contempt when the Chappaqua development project is moving forward after receiving final approvals at the beginning of July, and added the the federal government is going after the wrong issue.
“This is like having a kid not doing well in school because he doesn’t do his homework but punishing him for using a red toothbrush instead of a blue one,” he said. “It defies common sense and feeds into the overreaching argument that the county executive has been saying all along.”
Affordable housing was the focus of a recent Supreme Court case that resulted in a 5-4 decision in favor of HUD and disparate impact, which says housing discrimination doesn’t have to be intentional in order to be illegal.
Charles McNally, an HUD spokesperson, told the Review in a previous interview that this Supreme Court decision is “another important step in the long march toward fulfilling one our nation’s founding ideals: equal opportunity for all Americans.”
Astorino said the decision “puts unprecedented power in the hands of Washington bureaucrats.”
Kennedy supported the monitor’s position that a civil contempt motion should be filed against the county, but the county won’t be required to pay fines until federal district court Judge Denise Cote makes a decision on whether to uphold the motion.