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Westchester's hard road to affordable housing

Westchester Executive Rob Astorino is charged with carrying

Westchester Executive Rob Astorino is charged with carrying out the controversial settlement reached between the county and the federal government . (April 25, 2012) Credit: Faye Murman

Who ever thought that two lines in a 38-page document could hamper the goal of providing affordable housing in Westchester County? But never underestimate what can happen when lawyers, government and some contractually vague language come together.

Here we are, three years into a seven-year deal for affordable housing, and County Executive Rob Astorino's administration and the federal government are still battling over what exactly it means to "promote" something. It's turning out to be an expensive duel -- for not-for-profits whose funding has been held up because of the legal impasse and for taxpayers. And those 750 units that are to be placed in some of the county's wealthier communities? Presumably they'll get built on the court-ordered timetable. But it would help if the two sides weren't waging war, not at this pivotal point when time and money are so important. The resources would be better spent on the actual housing.

This divide is about advocating for, but not necessarily approving, a local law that would bar landlords from rejecting tenants based on their sources of income, notably Section 8 housing vouchers, Social Security or disability benefits.

The 20 words in dispute are tucked onto Page 27 of the now historic document and are so vague it's taken hundreds, if not thousands of hours, a slew of lawyers, a court-appointed monitor and federal judges to figure out what it means to promote a bill.

Not pass, but promote.

The Astorino administration maintains that the previous county executive, Democrat Andy Spano, fulfilled that obligation in 2009. The next year, during Astorino's first year in office, he vetoed the "source of income bill," which was passed by the Board of Legislators.

The recent decision by U.S. District Judge Denise Cote overturned a ruling by the magistrate she appointed to handle oversight of the case, which had favored Astorino. Cote found that Astorino violated the settlement by vetoing the income legislation. She rejected Astorino's argument that the county fulfilled its obligation when Spano promoted it.

In her ruling, which even included definitions from Webster's Dictionary, she wrote about practical interpretations of promoting the legislation and concluded that his actions effectively "killed" it.

"The veto was an unambiguous breach of the duty to promote," Cote wrote.

True to form, Astorino plans an appeal, and it's his right to do so.

HUD has repeatedly rejected the county's blueprint on how to get these units built, in part because of the source of income dispute, plus differences over the county's analysis of local zoning.

The vagueness of parts of this settlement highlights how difficult it can be when governments litigate a vision. If this is truly about providing affordable housing and creating opportunities for people who need it, then there's plenty of work to do for all involved.


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