OP-ED: Astorino or Bramson? Who’s for our middle class?

If I had a buck for each time Democratic politicians have invoked their concern for the “middle class,” I would be instantly catapulted from that socio-economic state to the exalted “one percent” of the country where many high-end Democratic operatives and bundlers—and yes, Mitt too—are happily ensconced.

While I’m aware that too many of us fail to connect the political dots, I am still somewhat mystified as to why so many Westchester County residents still don’t understand how anti-middle class—and anti-us—the federal government’s Department of Housing and Urban Development really is. I get that we are understandably focused on the lives we are living: Earning our livlihoods, the kids we have to rear and educate, family members for whom we have to care and the monthly mortgage and other payments that we must make. Heck, isn’t that what being middle class is really all about? We can also be purposefully distracted from the issues that should matter to us.

Have you seen Noam Bram­son’s “hot button” TV ads about gun shows at the Westchester County Center? It’s as if Noam were already running to succeed Nita Lowey in Congress and this race for county executive is the political equivalent of batting practice for him.

But the HUD issue really does matter and it is one we should all seriously consider when we go to vote this Nov. 5.

Westchester is, by and large, a diverse, middle class county. In terms of our African-American and Latino population, it is the fourth most diverse county in New York State—populated by families of various races, creeds, colors and ethnicities pursuing their hard won piece of the American Dream on a daily basis.

Many reside in single family homes set on modest-sized lots. Others own or rent an attractive apartment in a garden or higher rise setting within their chosen suburb. All of us are protected by our community’s locally set zoning ordinances, which require certain minimum lot sizes and limit its multi-family homes to certain areas, on a neighborhood by neighborhood basis, in accordance with that particular municipality’s topographical setting and community culture.

Further, zoning and discrimination are hardly synonymous terms.

Zoning merely determines what can be built where, not who may live where; and those denied residence in a home or apartment that they are able to afford because of discriminatory practices properly have an abundance of legal rights and remedies, not to mention three civil rights agencies, Westchester County’s Human Rights Commission included, at their disposal.

By way of background on the issue: Westchester County, then presided over by Andy Spano, was sued in 2006 because federal monies meant to fund a study to determine whether race was a factor in housing opportunities were allegedly misdirected elsewhere. In 2009, Spano, with the approval of the county Board of Legislators, and HUD entered into a settlement agreement that obligated Westchester to fund, and then build, a total of 750 affordable housing units throughout 31 of our municipalities by the end of 2016 at a cost to its taxpayers of $51 million.

Westchester, under County Executive Rob Astorino, is not only fully complying with that agreement, but is comfortably ahead of the agreed-to, court-approved schedule.

However, HUD has now gone into egregious overreach mode.

In the first instance, HUD is attempting to treat the 2009 settlement agreement as a mere starting point. It now wants the county to fund and build, I hope that you’re ready for this, 10,768 affordable housing units throughout the entire county at a cost to our taxpayers in the $700 million to $1 billion range. And that is only the immediately quantifiable part of its assault on the middle class.

As a means to its new goal, HUD is also attempting to bully the county into overriding our local zoning ordinances as HUD may deem necessary. It is going so far as to require that the county sue our cities, towns and villages if any of these municipalities fail to conform to  HUD’s idea of proper racial, ethnic and economic diversity. Lest you doubt for a moment that this is Washington-based social engineering at work, HUD has referred to its commitment to change our county as a “grand experiment.”

In showbiz terms: If it plays in Westchester, HUD will take it on the road.

What HUD wants to do is shape our communities so that they reflect HUD’s idea of the right mix of economic, racial and ethnic diversity based on, get ready yet again, its own “nationally uniform data.” HUD wants to be the ultimate “Zoning Busters”—OK, I admit that I used that term because it reminds me of the title of an old radio show that I listened to when I was a kid—without having to prove, or even allege, that the local zoning code it would bust has any discriminatory effect.

HUD’s position is that any—yes, that word was any—limits that a community’s zoning code may place on the size, type, height or density of a building, and that includes the one next door to you and me, would constitute a “restrictive” or “exclusionary practice,” mandating its intervention.

Now, if that’s not frightening enough for you, HUD is doing something else that is even more outrageous. They have withheld some $7.4 million—that’s Noam’s number, by the way—in federal grants from Westchester, even programs beyond the 31 communities affected by the 2009 settlement, to club the county into submission, including programs that aid the homeless.

Rob Astorino is fighting HUD tooth and nail because we all have a great deal at stake. Noam Bramson is all for sitting down with HUD and working out some sort of a settlement, the parameters of which he won’t share with us, on the theory, no doubt, that if they think that we were really, really good, this time they’ll keep their word.

If Noam wins this election, by the time HUD is through with us, we won’t recognize our neighborhoods.

But, hey, by then he will have Nita’s old job and every two years he’ll be reminding us how hard he’s fighting for the middle class.

Peter Lane retired as a Rye City Court judge and an acting Westchester County Family Court judge at the end of 2009 and is now, among other things, a political consultant.