WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. — Westchester County received the backing of a federal magistrate in its standoff with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) over a 2009 housing settlement Friday when the official ruled the lawyer monitoring the case "erred in concluding that the county executive violated the settlement." However, U.S. Magistrate Gabriel Gorenstein concluded that Westchester must fulfill the monitor’s requests to analyze zoning and outline a strategy to fight ordinances deemed exclusionary.
Republican County Executive Robert Astorino said he felt "validated" by the magistrate's decision that he hadn't breached the settlement by vetoing legislation forbidding landlords from discriminating against potential tenants based on the source of their income.
“My position from the beginning has been that the county will fulfill its obligations under the settlement, but it will not be bullied by the federal government into doing things that were never agreed to,” Astorino said in a statement. “I have taken principled stands where I believe the government has overreached, and I am pleased and heartened that the magistrate’s decision vindicates my actions.”
Astorino, who inherited the settlement from his predecessor, argued that former County Executive Andrew Spano fulfilled a stipulation requiring the county executive to "promote" source-of-income legislation "currently" before the board in 2009. Astorino claims his administration is ahead of schedule on building 750 units of affordable housing in 31 predominately white communities with the $51.6 million agreed upon in the settlement. The agreement also requires Westchester to market the homes to minorities outside of the county and educate residents about the benefits of integrated communities.
U.S. Magistrate Gabriel Gorenstein agreed with Astorino that the legal agreement couldn't force a county executive to sign source-of-income legislation. Astorino vetoed such a bill in July 2010 because he believed forcing landlords to accept federal vouchers "was a violation of basic property rights" and worried the legislation might inadvertently make housing more scarce and expensive.
If either HUD or the county disagrees with the magistrate's rulings, the dispute can be sent to another judiciary official for review.
The county and the monitor have also tussled over whether Westchester must outlined what criteria make an ordinance exclusionary and how the county will get municipalities to alter zoning that prevents the construction of fair housing. Astorino has vowed not to sue local municipalities; however, the monitor said legal action is a powerful tool that should not be overlooked.
The magistrate sided with the monitor, saying he “rejected the county’s objection that the monitor could not require it to ‘specify’ a strategy that it intends to employ to overcome exclusionary zoning.”
“In light of the fact that the county has declined to provide its strategy on this front at all — or has done so only in the vaguest terms — we do not view as ripe any question as to whether whatever strategy the county intends to pursue in this area does or does not come within its settlement obligations,” Gorenstein wrote.
The magistrate also dismissed the county’s demand that the monitor get involved in its dispute with HUD over a required report called the Analysis of Impediments (AI) to fair housing. HUD nixed $7 million in federal funding after rejecting Westchester’s fifth AI this summer.