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McKinstry: HUD controversy looms over 2013 Westchester campaign
Much of Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino's fourth State of the County address Tuesday night sounded like his others: He pledged another year with no tax increase, touted his plans for changing Playland and outlined his efforts to promote business and spur economic development — all while protecting social services.
And there were shout-outs to county residents who accomplished great things in the past year.
But when it came time to talk about the controversial landmark housing settlement reached in 2009 between the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and Westchester County, the first-term Republican grew more impassioned -- far more than I’ve ever seen from the usually gregarious leader.
He was bold, stern and fiery. The crowd at the Westchester County Courthouse in White Plains loved it, giving him repeated applause and one of the longest standing ovations of the evening. It was the central theme in his speech.
"We will not be bullied or threatened by HUD to do things that are not in the settlement," Astorino said.
"I say Westchester is our home -- not a test tube," he continued. "I say Westchester residents didn't stop becoming American citizens the day the deal was signed in 2009.
I say nothing gives HUD the right to turn the American dream upside down."
The challenge, Astorino said, is to move forward in this housing drama that requires Westchester to spend $52 million to help build 750 affordable units in 31 of its wealthier, and mostly white, communities.
Boy, is it going to be difficult.
It's perhaps the greatest issue facing the county now; it's complicated because of a legal fight with the feds and a looming election, a potentially dangerous combination.
Moving past these impasses has become increasingly difficult, mostly because of the disparate interpretations of and tensions from this deal.
The tough talk by the many sides shows no signs of easing. At all.
HUD is threatening to strip the county of at least $7.4 million in federal housing funds if the county doesn't come up with an analysis of exclusionary zoning the federal agency can agree with, or "promote" a law that would forbid landlords from discriminating against tenants who rely on Section 8 housing vouchers to pay rent.
If that's not enough, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara may seek contempt-of-court penalties against the county executive, which could include fines against the county and Astorino (spurring memories of Yonkers' nearly three-decade housing battle). The two federal agencies have given the county until Thursday to comply or come up with a plan to do so. (Meanwhile, the Board of Legislators earlier this week authorized legal action against HUD to hopefully restore the lost $7.4 million.)
All this coincides with political season: Democrats are slated to pick their nominee Wednesday night in White Plains. Board of Legislators Chairman Ken Jenkins of Yonkers, New Rochelle Mayor Noam Bramson and Legis. Bill Ryan of White Plains are all seeking the nod.
They've all agreed to back the convention winner. And they've all been critical of Astorino's implementation of the housing settlement.
Much has been said about how Astorino’s outspoken opposition to the housing settlement propelled him over the incumbent Democrat, County Executive Andy Spano, in 2009. Far too much, I think. Back then it was a tertiary issue to sky-high property taxes -- among the highest in the country -- and Spano fatigue after 12 years.
But that will change this year. Taxes are always on voters’ minds, but you can be sure this housing settlement will be, too.