Astorino presses discrimination feud with HUD

Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino talks to the Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino talks to the media in Valhalla. (March 1, 2012) Photo Credit: Rory Glaeseman

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Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino refuses to back down in an escalating battle with federal housing officials about the terms of a discrimination settlement.

"Westchester will continue to live up to all of its obligations," Astorino said in Wednesday night's State of the County address in White Plains. "But we will not be bullied by the federal government to accept demands, which in HUD's own words, go beyond the four corners of the settlement."

The 2009 settlement stems from a lawsuit targeting housing discrimination in the county and requires Westchester County to spend more than $52 million to build 750 affordable housing units in predominantly white communities.

Astorino said the county is fulfilling the terms of the settlement -- with 196 of the required housing units already financed -- but argues that the Department of Housing and Urban Development is overreaching its authority by requiring that private property owners accept government vouchers for housing and dismantle exclusionary zoning laws in neighboring towns and villages.

"Without any justification, HUD wants me to sue our villages and towns to dismantle local zoning," he said. "We will confine to build affordable housing by working cooperatively with our communities, not through litigation."

The issue is headed back to court this month over Astorino's veto last year of legislation requiring landlords to accept Section 8 vouchers. A special magistrate upheld Astorino's controversial decision in a March 16 ruling, but the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development filed a challenge, the outcome of which is pending.

In Wednesday night's address, Astorino said he believes those and other demands by the federal agency go beyond the deal brokered by his predecessor, Democrat Anthony Spano, and said he will continue to challenge them.

HUD spokesman Brian Sullivan declined to comment on Astorino's comments or the ongoing dispute.

Previously, HUD officials have said the county has fallen short of its obligations under the settlement, and they want the county to come up with a plan to identify and eliminate discriminatory zoning practices. County officials have submitted several plans, but the agency has rejected them and has withheld $14 million in funding in response.

Astorino said the county conducted a "thorough review" of zoning laws across the county and found no evidence of exclusionary practices. He said he believes the federal government is trying to "make an example" of the county.

Housing and anti-discrimination groups say the county is ignoring the broader issue of housing discrimination.

Craig Gurian, executive director of the Anti-discrimination Center, which filed the 2007 lawsuit that resulted in the settlement, said Westchester County remains "deeply segregated" and that the county has done little to break down barriers.

"They can build all the affordable housing units they want, but it doesn't address the roots of segregation in the county," he said. "These patterns didn't emerge naturally, but over decades of intentional discrimination."

Board of Legislators Chairman Ken Jenkins, a Yonkers Democrat, called Astorino's comments "counterproductive."

"If we spent less time bashing the people involved and start working with them to identify the issues, we could free up that money and get to the communities that need it," he said after Wednesday night's address.

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