Astorino, feds head back to court on housing

Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino addresses county officials Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino addresses county officials and citizens during the State of the County at the Westchester County Courhouse in White Plains. (April 25, 2012) Photo Credit: Faye Murman

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Westchester County officials are standing their ground in an escalating dispute with the federal government over the terms of an affordable housing settlement, vowing to fight the most recent round of litigation.

On Friday, U.S. District Attorney Preet Bharara filed court documents asking a federal judge to force the county to turn over documents related to the county's review of discriminatory housing practices by its towns and villages.

The two sides are expected to appear in a Manhattan federal court for a conference hearing on Wednesday at 11 a.m.

The review is a key provision of the 2009 housing discrimination settlement requiring Westchester County to spend more than $52 million to build 750 affordable housing units in predominantly white, affluent communities. County officials say they are fulfilling the terms of the settlement but have found no evidence of exclusionary zoning regulations.

Astorino's spokesman Ned McCormack said the county has done everything that was required.

"The federal government just refuses to accept our analysis that exclusionary zoning doesn't exist in the county," he said Sunday. "We are complying and trying to work with them on the zoning issue, but it never seems to be enough."

The U.S. attorney's request was made on behalf of James Johnson, the federal monitor appointed to oversee the settlement with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Johnson filed separate court documents late Friday essentially rejecting the county's zoning review for a second time.

In May, Johnson rejected the county's initial review and asked the county to turn over documents and correspondence related to the review and "make available" county employees as well as any private consultants who worked on it.

The county provided Johnson with additional documentation on July 6 -- including analysis by John Nolon, a Pace law professor and land use expert -- suggesting that there were no discriminatory zoning practices on the books.

But Johnson has rejected Westchester County's response and asked the federal government to "compel" the county to comply.

"To date the county's compliance with the monitor's requests for information, reports and analysis has been all too frequently marked by delay, incomplete production and, at times, wholesale failure to respond," Johnson wrote.

Bharara argues Astorino is trying to avoid complying with the settlement, which stems from a lawsuit settled by his predecessor Andy Spano alleging the county had accepted millions of dollars for affordable housing it never built.

"The county's refusal to provide a complete response to the May 14 request in a timely manner is only one example of the county's lack of full cooperation and pattern of delay and insufficient responses undermining not only the monitor's authority, but also the overall purpose of the settlement," Bharara wrote in the court papers filed Friday.

The feds also are targeting Astorino over his veto last year of legislation requiring landlords to accept Section 8 government vouchers as rent. A special magistrate upheld Astorino's decision in a March 16 ruling, but Manhattan U.S. District Judge Denise Cote overturned that ruling and ordered Astorino to resubmit the legislation for approval.

The Astorino administration has appealed Cote's ruling, the outcome of which is still pending.

"If a landlord wants to accept them as part of their business model, that's fine," McCormack said. "What this is doing is changing the game by forcing everyone to accept them, and we feel that that is not correct."

More than $12 million in affordable housing funds are being withheld by HUD in response to the escalating dispute.

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