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By Tori Richards | Watchdog.org
New York’s Westchester County boasts antebellum mansions and castles tucked inside villages and towns whose residents include former President Bill Clinton, Michael Douglas, Ralph Lauren, David Letterman, Michael Bloomberg and the Rockefellers.
You wouldn’t think a place like that would — or would even need to — ask the U.S. Housing and Urban Development for help in providing infrastructure to its poor. But county lawmakers have done exactly that since 1976, and they’re discovering too late that it’s a deal with the devil.
Now they’re fighting the feds over a plan to build low-income housing in some of the nation’s ritziest neighborhoods.
“If anybody could go back to 1976, they should say, ‘Run!’ That is the message we send to other municipalities around the country,” said George Oros, chief of staff to Westchester County Executive Robert Astorino.
A 2006 federal lawsuit accused the county of failing to meet diversity standards in its 48 municipalities, and of refusing to build the affordable housing that would help correct the problem. The county settled in 2009, giving HUD $21.6 million to hold until Westchester complied with a series of mandates.
PRICEY HOMES AT HUGE DISCOUNT: This affordable housing project in Cortlandt, New York, is part of the 750-unit requirement in the settlement of a 2009 lawsuit between Westchester County and HUD.
But Astorino and other county leaders have since decided they don’t want HUD or its money. They’re ignoring increasingly hostile letters from the federal government, including threats of legal action. Westchester’s Oros says the red tape, the crazy government formulas for determining diversity — all of it is too much.
“What can they do to us?” shrugged Oros. “We said, ‘Keep your money, we don’t want it anymore.’ They are frustrated that we want them to keep the money. We don’t need it, we don’t want it.”
He says county officials have told HUD, “We are done doing your analysis. We’ve done it eight times and have come to a different conclusion than you.”
Westchester is an overwhelmingly Democratic county — 63 percent of the voters backed President Obama in the previous election. But Astorino, a Republican, unseated Westchester’s Democratic incumbent in 2009 promising to combat excessive county taxation and spending.
HUD wants Westchester to complete a study of impediments to diversity and build 750 affordable housing units. Westchester is ahead of its 2017 deadline for the latter, but it’s the former that bedevils HUD officials.
Westchester officials say they have done adequate surveys. HUD says they have not.
“They haven’t done an analysis of each town to see if there is any impediment to fair housing,” said HUD’s regional administrator Holly Leight. “They say there is no discriminate zoning and so we are not doing it. And we say, do the analysis to prove it then.”
Leight is especially concerned with Chappaqua, where the Clintons live. A developer purchased a plot of land near a railway there to build affordable housing, but local officials refused to issue a permit.
“HUD should talk to former President Clinton and Secretary Clinton who live there, it’s their town,” Oros responded. “And Gov. Andrew Cuomo. He lives there. If they have any issues, talk to them. The town building inspector has denied the permits based on not meeting fire code.”
Last week, a state planning commission granted a fire code variance at the site, opening the door for possible development.
Many of the areas HUD is eyeballing cannot support affordable housing for a variety of factors, Oros said. These include land that is ecologically protected or located on slopes; lacks adequate utilities and sewers; or has limited access to highways or railways.
HUD has sent Astorino a series of letters during the past few years, each “more threatening than the last,” Oros said. A May 13, 2011, letter even asked him to “go beyond the four corners of the (2009) settlement … including litigation” — that is, to sue towns into producing affordable housing.
“We have no standing to sue a town under zoning,” Oros said. “That’s up to a developer who wouldn’t be able to build there.”
Another demand that wasn’t part of the settlement involved requesting emails written by Astorino and Oros that purportedly could show some wrongdoing. Rather than fight the issue in court, the pair supplied the emails saying they have nothing to hide.
“HUD will not be satisfied unless we reach a conclusion that some of these municipalities have exclusionary zoning,” Oros said.
But if you ask Leight, she says Westchester isn’t being asked to do anything more than other cities and towns across the US.
“We have no reason to rewrite their zoning,” she said. “It’s up to them to figure out whether it can be overcome. This isn’t that complicated.”
As a result of the stalemate, Westchester County has forfeited the millions they paid into their HUD account though the settlement. The county has not applied to receive any additional funds, so you’d think that would be the end of it. Not so.
“This is going through the court and we are trying to have the court make them comply with (the settlement),” Leight said. “The court can find them in contempt and fine them.”
Leight said HUD will “stick with it” and seek that option if Westchester doesn’t submit the requested analysis.
For Astornio and Oros, the HUD oversight is anti-American. Capitalism means buying whatever you want — like a house next door to the Clintons — if you work hard enough to earn the money. It has nothing to do with race, they say.
During a 2009 news conference to announce the settlement, HUD Secretary Ron Simms repeatedly called HUD’s mission a “grand experiment” and said Westchester “embodies this grand experiment.”
Astorino did not back the settlement, which happened before he took office. He said he believed the county was not violating HUD mandates and would’ve won the case in court.
“You had some ideologues in ‘09 when Obama first came in, and they looked at Westchester and said, ‘This can be an incubator that everything should be equal and everyone should have the same housing,’” Oros said. “Instead of ‘Let’s fix the inner city,’ it’s ‘Let’s drag everyone else down.’”
Tori Richards has worked for CBS News, Bloomberg, Reuters. Agence-France Presse, the NY Post, the NY Times and The Daily among others. Her work has also appeared on CNN.com, FoxNews.com and US News & World Report.