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McKinstry: Westchester housing saga gets past an obstacle

Westchester County Executive Robert Astorino held a press

Westchester County Executive Robert Astorino held a press conference in the county office building in White Plains with representatives from nine Westchester municipalities to address reports cards sent from the federal monitor of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The report cards address 31 eligible Westchester communities in the 2009 affordable housing settlement. (June 12, 2013) Photo Credit: Andy Jacobsohn

Cue the marching band. Release the doves. Hallelujah, we have a housing law.

With ramped up pressure from the feds, the Westchester County Board of Legislators approved a so-called source-of-income bill Monday night. The vote was a convincing 15-2, and had bipartisan support. So now County Executive Rob Astorino has to put his signature on the legislation.

Believe me, he's going to sign it. Maybe he'll even have one of those public parties where everyone gathers around his desk, like when he vetoed hundreds of budget items during his first year in office.

The county executive took a philosophical stand against the source-of-income proposal and fought it for years.

But he lost that fight, and is moving on.

"That's over, as far as we're concerned," Astorino's chief adviser, Ned McCormack, told me this week.

The saga has been central in the ongoing disagreement between Westchester County and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development over the affordable housing settlement reached in 2009. The source-of-income concept basically forbids landlords from discriminating against tenants who rely on Section 8 housing vouchers, disability benefits or Social Security.

Astorino had argued that a landlord shouldn't be forced to do business with the federal government (accepting Section 8, for example is a business choice, he says) and that existing laws already ban housing discrimination. Adding another law -- one that now comes with fines of up to $50,000 -- would be too onerous for landlords, he has said.

It's been the subject of court challenges, appeals and lots of rhetoric. And it's a reason why the feds are withholding $7.4 million -- and growing -- in community development block grants, money that's supposed to go toward the very goal of building affordable housing.

How ironic is that?

So too is it curious that New York State Legislature apparently isn't moving on similar legislation tucked into Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's Women's Equality Act. But that's a story for another day.

The settlement in Westchester stipulated that the county must spend roughly $52 million to help build 750 units in 31 of its wealthier and whiter communities and "promote" the source-of-income legislation.

Astorino didn't. He was a bit too clever, saying that since his predecessor, Andy Spano, promoted the bill, he didn't have to. Instead, he vetoed it. A federal magistrate judge sided with Astorino, but then a series of appeals concluded that he needed to actually promote, and then sign, the law. The U.S. attorney even threatened the county executive with contempt of court, a big stick that could have bankrupted the county executive personally.

But now, problem solved. Check's in the mail, right?

Not likely.

Zoning stands to be the next hurdle, and judging from people I've talked to, it might just trump the source-of-income fight. Some believe this could be the really big battle with the federal government, perhaps even finding its way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

That's just speculation, of course. But the county recently submitted its seventh zoning analysis to HUD and the federal monitor. If history is a guide, this one will be rejected, too.

"We keep coming to the same conclusion and it's not a surprise to anyone: Zoning is not the issue; that's why we are ahead of schedule," McCormack said.

Financing is in place for 386 housing units throughout Westchester, so the county is ahead of the 300 needed by the end of 2013. Roughly 115 of the county's new homes are occupied in places like Pelham, Rye and Cortlandt, which makes you wonder: How did they get built if zoning is so restrictive against affordable housing?

Cooperation. Persistence. Hard work, perhaps. There are more than a few county planners who can attest to how much effort is put into getting this done.

Astorino maintains the county, under his watch, will live up to its end of the bargain. Then he'd like to "hand the keys over" to the feds, homeowners, or whomever, and be done with this deal.

That would be music to Astorino's ears.

Gerald McKinstry is a member of the Newsday editorial board.

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