Wetchester County Executive Rob Astorino and members of the County Board of Legislators from both parties agree on stopping U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) from withholding federal funds in response to what the agency believes are two items in which the county has failed to comply with its affordable housing settlement.
After an hours-long meeting on Tuesday of the legislature’s Committee of the Whole and several of Astorino’s administration officials, it appears that there could be a vote from the full body on allowing for the county attorney to seek an injunction against HUD. The intention, explained board Chairman Kenneth Jenkins, is to prevent funds that are designated for municipalities and non-profits from being taken away from them; the county, meanwhile, merely acts as a passthrough for the federal money. A vote for the authorization is slated for Monday, Jenkins said.
Meanwhile, Astorino and the legislature will send a letter to HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and members of the area’s Congressional delegation, requesting the state take over the county’s passthrough role for the funds. Legislatures cite recent precedent, where post-Hurricane Sandy disaster relief, initiated under a similar federal program and some of the funding discussed, was intended to move through the state.
With both avenues on the table, Jenkins, a Yonkers Democrat who is seeking to unseat Astorino in this year’s election, described the response as a “two-prong approach.”
Majority Leader, and fellow Democrat, Peter Harckham, spoke with reporters after coming out of an executive session portion of the meeting, and described in general what the approach would be to take.
“Let's not penalize the municipalities. If you don't want the county to be the passthrough, that's fine.”
The interest from the board comes days after Astorino made a request for authorization for the county attorney to pursue legal action against HUD. Astorino has also requested a hearing on the funding dispute.
HUD, in a March 25 letter, warned the county that it would lose about $7.4 million in funds if there was no promotion of source of income legislation, which would bar landlords from refusing to accept rental payments from federal programs such as Section 8 vouchers. HUD also argued that Westchester had not satisfactorily completed an analysis of impediments and needed to do more to identify “exclusionary zoning” at the local level.” A deadline of April 25 for compliance was given.
Astorino has blasted HUD for its withholding threat.
“If HUD has issues, there is a process to be followed," he said in a recent statement. "What HUD is doing is extortion based on nothing more than its unsupported opinions. The county is asking for nothing more than to be treated fairly under HUD’s own rules.”
One administration official echoed Astorino's frustration.
“They want it their way or no way,” said Deputy County Executive Kevin Plunkett, who was among those from Astorino's camp present at the meeting.
Since the HUD letter, a federal appeals court has ruled in favor of the federal government over a dispute between the agency and Astorino on promoting source of income legislation. The county executive vetoed similar legislation in 2010 and has argued that landlords should not be required to comply with Section 8. Astorino has called on legislators to introduce related legislation, while Democratic members of the body argue that the onus is on him to do so.
During the committee meeting, it was noted that James Johnson, a monitor who is overseeing the 2009 settlement, is working on his own study on local zoning. It was wondered what impact Johnson’s work would have on the county’s dilemma with HUD on the topic and what it could mean legally.
“Well, how did HUD come to their determination that there's exclusionary zoning in Westchester when the monitor's still doing his review,” said legislative Minority Leader James Maisano, a Republican who agrees with his Democratic counterparts on seeking to preserve the funds, which were for the 2011 fiscal year.
The settlement calls for the construction of 750 affordable housing units in predominantly white communities by 2016.