Is Westchester County in compliance with the 2009 Fair and Affordable Housing settlement?
That’s the question Phil Benza, a member of the Westchester County Association, asked a panel Wednesday night during a forum hosted by League of Women Voters at Bedford town court.
The answer that was provided wasn’t as simple as yes or no.
“It’s in compliance with certain aspects of it,” said James Johnson, the housing monitor appointed to Westchester County by the federal court. “The aspects related to the provision of housing units is in compliance. We are headed toward a substantial compliance toward the deadlines related to the elements of the implementation plan.”
Still, there are areas of that Johnson believes the county still remains noncompliant in. One of those areas is the failure of the county to promote source-of-income legislation, which refers to Section 8 vouchers, social security, supplemental security income, veteran's benefits and pensions. Johnson said those aspects are currently being settled before a magistrate judge in federal court.
“There are areas of progress and and compliance and there are are of noncompliance,” Johnson said. “In respect to the areas of noncompliance, the source of income is something that is before the magistrate judge and we will find out if I was on point [with my assessment] or not.”
More than 100 people attended the forum, which was moderated by county Legislator Peter Harckham, D-Katonah.
In 2006, the Anti-Discrimination Center of Metro New York brought a federal lawsuit that claimed the county failed to live up to its obligation to provide affordable housing and address issues of racial segregation in its housing markets.
That suit eventually led to a $63 million settlement in 2009 that requires the county to build 750 units of affordable housing in the county's predominantly white communities and to market those units to the nine counties surrounding Westchester.
The panel was made up of Johnson; Janet Hostetler, senior advisor to the assistant secreatry for Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development; Mary Mahon, special assistant to county Executive Rob Astorino; Norma Drummond, deputy commissioner for housing and community development for the county planning department; Thomas McGrath, chairman of the Bedford’s Town Housing Agency and the Blue Mountain Housing Development Corporation; and William Balter of Wilder Balter Partners, which has built a number of affordable housing units in the region.
“Their principal objective is just to educate you on how they fit into this puzzle,” Harckham said.
Hostetler said the lawsuit had been going for a while before HUD stepped in. She said her agency became involved in the legal dispute after county was faced with $150 million in liability.
“That liability, if the county had lost in court, would have gone all to the U.S. Treasury,” Hostetler said. “HUD’s concern at that point was that nothing is bettered by the county being bankrupt and a bunch of money going to the U.S. Treasury to go into a giant pot that...that sort of disappears.”
Hostetler said HUD’s interest was to work with all the parties involved and come to an agreement. The result of that was the 2009 settlement.
Mahon said the county has already exceeded some the benchmarks set forth in the settlement agreement. While the county was required to 100 units with financing in place at this point, Mahon said the county has exceeded that figure with 182 units with financing in place. Mahon said 108 of those units had their building permits in place, which is 58 more than what is required.
Mahon said the first sale took place last year with three-family home and the owner is expected to rent out the other two units soon. She also said that there have more than 200 site violations of all of the eligible communities listed in the agreement.
“We have at this point 540 units, including those that I talked about as having financing in place in what’s called the pipeline, so we are 72 percent toward the identifying developments which would go toward the 750 obligation,” Mahon said. “I will also say, as they are proceeding through the pipeline, they might not all make it. But, at this point, we would not be identifying the if they were not significantly along the way.”
Drummond said the county is taking multi-pronged approach to affordable housing and is working larger scale campaigns regarding moving to county, making sure the county is a welcoming community and making sure that people file discrimination complaints when necessary.
Drummond also said the county started the Web site www.westchestergov.com/Homeseeker in 2010 as way for potential homeowners to stay abreast of affordable housing opportunities.
“In the first year we 909 families register from all over, and I mean all over the country,” Drummond said. “But in the second year, on Sept. 30 2011, we were actually to expand upon the monitor’s request to be able to include the opportunity to catch the registration for rental households for those who were interested in our rental opportunities.”
Drummond said registrants come from as far west as Oregon and even from the 31 eligible. Thirty-one percent of the registrants identified themselves as white and 41 percent as black, while a third of the registrants didn’t identify themselves.
Bruce Yablon, a Katonah resident, asked the panel about the socio-economic aspects of the people who qualify for affordable housing.
“A lot of people in the community, neighbors because of certain involvement I have, ask me about this and some, unfortunately, have a skewed perception as to what affordable, or low income housing is and, unfortunately, have a perception of it being a ne'er-do-well community,” Yablon said.
Drummond said the county already has a long history of already providing affordable housing and that tours have been done in communities where people can’t tell the difference between the affordable housing units and the regular.
“It blends so well the with the community,” Drummond said. “We’re not going to force any community to build affordable housing that doesn’t look like the rest of the character of the neighborhood.”
Drummond said the foreclosure rate on the more than 1,200 affordable housing units done by the county is less than 1 percent.
Jim Russell, a Mount Pleasant resident and member of the group “Save Our Neighborhoods,” accused the panel of presenting a sugar-coated, overly optimistic version of what the fair housing plan will entail.
“In the beginning, we heard that it wasn’t going to be Section 8 housing, it wasn’t going to be public assistance to qualify,” Rusell said. “You’ve heard here that people can make up to 80 percent (of the median income), but we don’t hear that they can make as low as 30 percent of the average income levels and on the application itself, it says ‘do you have welfare as a source of income.’ I think we’d all do well to consider the potential impact of the overcrowding of our schools, the crime rate and various other aspects before we jump on the bandwagon.”
Russell also wanted to know what actions HUD thinks should be taken against communities that are skeptical of the affordable housing plan.
Hostetler said she recently looked at studies that analyzed the link between Section 8 voucher holders and crime.
“The connection has been found that while Section 8 voucher holder may be more likely to live in areas with higher crimes, there’s absolutely no increase in crime anywhere where there’s an increase in Section 8 voucher holders,” Hostetler said.
Hostetler also said that the Fair Housing Office is a civil rights office and one of the things it addresses is community opposition to Section 8 housing.
“Community opposition to affordable housing, community opposition to those people, is something that we see in areas around the country that become a barrier to allowing there to be free choice in housing,” Hostetler said. “Free choice in housing goes both ways. It means no that you just have a free choice in where you get to live, but that everyone has options as to where they live.”
A video stream of the forum will be available on Bedford’s town website.