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McKinstry: The sharp divide in Westchester's housing battle

Maurice Jones, deputy secretary for the U.S. Department

Maurice Jones, deputy secretary for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, speaks to news reporters in White Plains about the 2009 affordable housing settlement with Westchester County. (June 4, 2013) Photo Credit: Christian Wade

Maurice Jones says he wants to work with Westchester County in its ongoing impasse with the federal government over affordable housing.

But he blames the county for not living up to its end of the grand bargain.

"I want this deal done," said Jones, deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. "I want to solve a problem."

A former newspaper publisher in Virginia, Jones actually commended the county for gains it's made. Yet during a stop in White Plains Tuesday, Jones also tried to debunk County Executive Rob Astorino's assertions that HUD is equating zoning laws with discrimination and remained adamant that Westchester must be more accountable if the feds are going to "play ball."

The deputy secretary's visit came a few days after Astorino's latest appearances on the "Fox & Friends" program, where the Republican executive blasted President Barack Obama, HUD and the organization's punitive posture against Westchester.

The two sides have been waging a very public battle, and they don't agree on much: Not on the numbers, interpretation or provisions of the settlement, which was reached in 2009 and requires Westchester County to spend $51.6 million to help build 750 affordable units in 31 of its mostly white and affluent suburbs by 2016.

Even those numbers -- the units and amount of money the county must spend in particular -- are open to interpretation: On Tuesday, Jones suggested they were the floor, not the ceiling, for housing goals.

That, no doubt, will surprise, and even bother, some county lawmakers, who signed on to the agreement believing those were the benchmarks - -- spend $51.6 million and build 750 units over seven years. I know a few legislators voted for the settlement, despite having reservations, after being given assurances that the numbers were indeed real.

The settlement was supposed to be a model for the rest of the nation. Right now, it's no model. It may never be - -- not if the first four years are a guide.

Mind you, divisions over the actual construction of housing aren't the cause of all this consternation. Not yet, anyway. Westchester has either built or secured financing for more than 300 units and is now a year ahead of schedule, which Jones acknowledged.

Schisms over an income anti-discrimination proposal -- - which was mired in court and appeals and subsequent threats by the feds to hold Astorino in contempt of court -- had long been a problem, but that could be resolved as early as this month if the county board approves the bill. The county's analysis of zoning impediments (the latest version stands at 2,200 pages), which HUD has rejected six times and characterized as incomplete, looks like it'll be the next big fight -- and headed to a court near you.

HUD stripped the county of $7.4 million in community development block grant dollars (money that is actually supposed to be used to build affordable housing) and is threatening to withhold more if Westchester doesn't do exactly what it's asking, such as identifying how local zoning, environmental and building laws might prevent the construction of affordable housing and then make efforts to change those impediments. The county maintains zoning isn't as much the issue as the price of housing and land, but HUD's not buying it.

"When the county does what it's supposed to do, then it will get the money," Jones said of the block grants. "We still stand ready to work with Westchester."

You have to wonder, though, if it's too late for the parties to stand together as they did four years ago, when Democrat Andy Spano was county executive, touting the model. The two sides aren't talking nearly enough -- and when they do, it's through legal memos, the court-appointed monitor, whispers and the media.

Jones and other HUD officials from Washington may say they're ready to work with the county, but they had no plans this week to meet with the county executive or his staff. They were just a few blocks from Astorino's office for their "State of Fair Housing in Westchester County" news conference, but didn't stop by.

That's a wasted opportunity. And no way to get a deal done.

Gerald McKinstry is a member of the Newsday editorial board.