By CHRIS EBERHART
The Westchester County Board of Legislators is continuing to move the 2009 affordable housing settlement forward after years of stalemate between the federal government and the Republican county administration.
Meanwhile, administration officials claim that HUD is merely trying to carry out its vision of Westchester as exclusionary in nature.
On May 28, Board of Legislators Chairman Mike Kaplowitz, a Somers Democrat, announced the federally appointed court monitor overseeing implementation of the settlement between Westchester and the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, Jim Johnson, will complete an analysis known as the Huntington test, which determines whether municipalities have exclusionary zoning based on race.
The Huntington test has been the sticking point in concluding the settlement.
This marks the latest progress on the housing settlement front after the Board of Legislators, on April 24, took over negotiations from the administration of Republican County Executive Rob Astorino, which had battled HUD over the settlement for years.
Kaplowitz said, in the spirit of cooperation and rejuvenated talks, the court monitor has agreed to conduct the Huntington test on behalf of the county at no cost to the taxpayers.
The test is a component of the analysis of impediments, a review of the barriers affecting the rights of fair housing choice and is a requirement of the county as part of the 2009 settlement.
The Huntington test was created after the 1988 court case NAACP v. Town of Huntington, which found the Long Island Town of Huntington’s zoning ordinance restricted multifamily housing to a section of the town that was already largely minority and would have “the effect of perpetuating segregation in the town.”
To date, the county has submitted eight analyses of impediments. HUD rejected them all, saying they were incomplete because the Huntington test was not included.
But Astorino and his administration said this test has been included in the previously submitted analyses.
The back-and-forth stalemate over Huntington stopped the housing settlement from moving forward.
Kaplowitz said the court monitor completing the test acts as a “logjam remover.”
“The boulders are gone, and the water can move freely again,” Kaplowitz said.
Johnson is expected to complete the report by Aug. 15.
Kaplowitz said the analyses submitted by Westchester County only included the Berenson test, which was derived from the 1975 court case Berenson v. Town of New Castle, and focuses on exclusionary zoning based on socio-economic factors—and excluded the Huntington test.
Both are required as part of the analysis of impediments.
Astorino spokesperson Ned McCormack said the county has provided three analyses in the past year—dated April 23, 2013, June 13, 2013, and July 23, 2013—that included the Huntington test and all the analyses found there were no exclusionary zoning based on race or ethnicity.
“We’ve done the Huntington test. We just haven’t stated the conclusion that HUD demands,” McCormack said. “They want us to find exclusionary zoning because, without it, they have no right to come in and dismantle our zoning code.”
“After [the analysis of impediments] has been turned back eight times, we have to look at ourselves and say, maybe it’s not them, maybe it’s us,” Kaplowitz said. “I compare it to a medical test. We got to take the medical test. Denial is not a plan. Let’s have the monitor look at [our zoning], and then we’ll deal with what comes out of it.”
The 2009 affordable housing settlement, agreed to under former Democratic County Executive Andy Spano during his final year in office, has been a bone of contention between Astorino and the federal government since he took office in 2010.
The county executive has not backed down from his stance Westchester is in compliance with the original settlement and none of its municipalities have exclusionary zoning.
Astorino’s stance contradicts Johnson’s 2013 report that listed seven Westchester municipalities as having exclusionary zoning.
Since the report was released, the Town of Mamaroneck, one of the seven, rezoned to increase the amount of land set aside for multifamily housing, which leaves six municipalities with what HUD believes is exclusionary zoning—Harrison, Pelham Manor, Croton-on-Hudson, Lewisboro, Ossining and Pound Ridge. Of those six, five are in discussions to change their zoning with Harrison as the sole holdout, according to Kaplowitz.
In a recent interview, Harrison Mayor Ron Belmont, a Republican, told the Review Harrison does not have exclusionary zoning, so there’s no reason to change the zoning.
The six remaining municipalities are the reason HUD believes the county is not in compliance and has withheld $17.4 million in community development block grant money from 2011 to 2013. That money goes toward revitalizing neighborhoods, preventing homelessness and building affordable housing.
The $7.2 million grant from 2011 has already been reallocated and lost to Westchester, and Astorino said he was willing to forfeit the $5.2 million grant from 2012. During his State of the County address on May 1, 2014, Astorino proposed a $5 million county-funded block grant to replace the lost federal block grant, but that was quickly shot down by Democratic legislators.
In an attempt to save the $5.2 million grant, the Board of Legislators intervened in the discussions between HUD and the county. Before the board stepped in, the deadline to be in compliance before losing the $5.2 million was May 7, but that was bumped back to June 9.
Now, everything will be put on hold until the monitor’s results are released on Aug. 15.