Gerald McKinstry, Lohud, November 6, 2011
The federal government wants Westchester County to be a model for how to provide quality affordable housing for minorities in upscale communities. But when an Obama administration official recently toured new apartments in Rye–part of a controversial housing desegregation settlement–he characterized the site as a “missed opportunity.”
The 18 homes are just yards away from the middle-class and racially diverse community of Port Chester. It doesn’t feel like part of more upscale Rye, said John Trasvina, of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
“For all intents and purposes, you’re in Port Chester,” he said. “We can do better.”
Trasvina’s disappointment illustrates the very different views that the federal government and Westchester County have of their settlement.
Westchester is part of HUD’s “national vision” to provide more affordable housing to minorities. And if a community accepts federal housing dollars, they must deliver on that promise.
The county has five more years to build 750 homes in its more affluent, white communities. It will be a slow process: Two years after the settlement, the county has completed three units, in Pelham.
Construction has begun at three other sites, in Yorktown, Cortlandt and Rye.
To date, all 31 communities have projects at some point in the pipeline, including in Armonk, Briarcliff Manor, Larchmont, Mohegan Lake and others, County Executive Rob Astorino said.
But Astorino, who says Westchester is already diverse, does not want to force communities to take steps they are uncomfortable with. As a result, the feds and the county are at an impasse on many issues, even as towns and villages work on housing plans.
The Astorino administration has reached a roadblock with HUD that could land the matter back in court.
The housing agency, which said the county will serve as a national model, wants Westchester to address “exclusionary” zoning practices that HUD believes have contributed to a dearth of diversity in some areas.
It wants the county to review other laws that discriminate against people who use vouchers to pay rent or mortgages.
Astorino also has concerns that if developers can’t be found to build the 750 homes, the costs could spike, and the obligation would fall to the county and could bankrupt it.
HUD leaders have expressed frustration at Astorino’s reluctance to support a law that bars discrimination against people who use federal Section 8 vouchers to pay for housing. They want him to move forward with diversity and fair housing.
While Astorino has accused the agency of crossing a line in enforcement and using this settlement as a test case, he maintains that Westchester is diverse. New census figures show that more minorities live in the county, and the open market is doing far more than this settlement will ever do, he said.
“We’re getting banged on the head by the federal government,” Astorino said. “HUD made these unreasonable demands. If this has to be fought, I’m willing to fight it.”
HUD is investigating about 18 other communities across the country and working with hundreds of others to ensure compliance as the federal government moves on a goal it says is about promoting opportunity and equity.