Housing monitor talks exclusionary zoning with Westchester legislators

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At a meeting Thursday with the monitor in the 2009 fair housing settlement, Westchester legislators representing the seven communities deemed to have exclusionary zoning in the monitor’s latest report asked how they could help them satisfy the monitor’s concerns.

Moving past the legal and ideological fights going on between the administration and the federal government, several legislators were anxious to work on practical steps to help the communities move out of the exclusionary column and into the group of 24 the monitor found to have acceptable zoning codes under state law.

The monitor, Jim Johnson, a lawyer with Debevoise & Plimpton in New York City, said he hopes to sit down with the county and HUD to move the process forward. Johnson has also met with four of the communities he identified as exclusionary in the analysis of municipal zoning he released at the end of July. The fair housing settlement requires the county to complete the zoning analysis as part of a larger Analysis of Impediments to fair housing choice. But HUD has yet to accept the county’s analysis and the monitor did his own review to try to narrow the dispute, he said.

The county and federal government will be in court Friday over HUD’s decision to reallocate $7.4 million in community development grants over the analysis.

Acknowledging a lot was up to the municipalities, Legislator Jim Maisano, who represents Pelham Manor, one of the seven, asked Johnson what the procedure would be over the next few months. Pelham Manor, he noted, was working on a zoning change that would allow affordable housing.

“I think we’d all like to get the seven on the 24 list tomorrow,” he said. But even at the fastest, changes will take two or three months, he said.

Johnson said he has no authority over the communities but the first step is to start the conversation, work through the issues and develop potential solutions. He said he was open to learning new facts about the communities but unlikely to hear enough to change his legal analysis.

Legislator David Gelfarb, a Republican who represents Harrison, one of the seven, also said he’d like to help facilitate a dialogue.

“I’d like to see representatives from Harrison sit down with Monitor Johnson and see if some discussion and communication can go forward that can help get Harrison off the list of seven,” he said after the meeting.

HUD, which has the final authority to accept the zoning analysis, hasn’t responded to the monitor’s report and has not said what its next move will be.

Legislator Michael Kaplowitz raised the possibility of the seven towns making changes that would move them into the non-exclusionary category before the county and HUD agree on the county’s analysis. Would the county’s analysis, which says there’s no exclusionary zoning in Westchester municipalities, then be sufficient, he asked.

“Are we not at that point then substantially in compliance?” Kaplowitz said.

At the meeting, Johnson also suggested it would be helpful if the county would do a new study of the need for affordable housing countywide. The last study, by Rutgers University for the county’s Housing Opportunity Commission, was done in 2004. The study, which recommended the county build more than 10,000 units by 2015, has been the focus of controversy over the past several months, with questions over whether the 10,000 units could be made a new goal under the settlement.

Johnson and HUD officials have said there is no authority under the settlement to raise the required number above 750 and Johnson reiterated it Thursday.

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