Editorial

Editorial: Westchester mustn't risk heavy fines in housing fight

Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino discusses the development

Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino discusses the development of part of the Grasslands Reservation — which the county owns — in Valhalla during a White Plains press conference. (March 1, 2012) (Credit: Rory Glaeseman)

Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino is running out of time to comply with the affordable housing settlement. Astorino was denied a reprieve earlier this month by a federal appeals court that refused to freeze action in the controversial case brought by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. . U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara on Wednesday called Astorino's bluff: He will hold Westchester in contempt of court if the county executive doesn't move forward with legislation that would bar landlords from discriminating against tenants who use government benefits such as Section 8 housing vouchers, disability payments or Social Security to pay rent.

Astorino has until Friday to decide or Bharara will pursue a contempt motion. And judging from the court's past rulings, it might not be such a hard sell for the prosecutor.

The U.S. attorney wants Astorino to reintroduce the income discrimination legislation to the Westchester County Board of Legislators and, if passed, sign it. Astorino had vetoed the same legislation in 2010, which the court considered an "unambiguous breach" of the settlement reached in 2009 between Astorino's predecessor, Democrat Andy Spano, and the federal government and later approved by the Board of Legislators.

A federal judge in May also criticized Astorino for failing to comply with the decree by violating provisions, such as not promoting the source of income legislation.

Continued resistance by the county executive is likely to cost the county heavy fines and become a major distraction. The City of Yonkers learned this the hard way during a hostile 27-year housing desegregation battle that nearly bankrupt the city because of fines that reached $1 million each day.

That tough lesson shouldn't be ignored.

Astorino has long been opposed to the housing settlement and the source of income law. But he has maintained that he would abide by the terms -- and will spend more than $50 million to help build 750 units of affordable housing in 31 of Westchester's more affluent and white communities over seven years.

The county, as Astorino contends, is ahead of schedule on the construction and is well on its way to meeting the obligations. His challenge on the merits to the flawed source of income law can proceed. But drawing a line in the sand now by defying a court order will overshadow the merits of that argument, potentially jeopardizing the county's fulfillment of the settlement and costing taxpayers more money.

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