The court monitor overseeing Westchester County’s fair housing case has agreed to complete the analysis that has become the major sticking point in the implementation of the 2009 fair housing settlement with the federal government.
Though several hurdles remain, the work could help resolve the major impasse that has sent the case back to court and led the federal government to withhold about $20 million in grants from the county.
An analysis of whether local zoning excludes black and Hispanic residents has been holding up the settlement for years as the county has submitted hundreds of pages of information and the Department of Housing and Urban Development has said the county’s analysis is inadequate. The county stopped work on the analysis months ago.
The monitor, Jim Johnson, a lawyer with Debevoise & Plimpton in New York, is doing the analysis at the request of the Westchester Board of Legislators, which is stepping into the middle of the settlement dispute to try to break the impasse between the county and the feds.
Likening the analysis to a trip to the doctor, board Chairman Michael Kaplowitz, D-Somers, said “The choices are do nothing and hope that there’s nothing wrong with you or finally get out from under this housing settlement.”
Kaplowitz said he doesn’t believe any town has intentionally adopted exclusionary zoning but there may be work that has to be done. Several communities are already working on zoning changes to comply with the settlement and “the sky is not falling,” he said.
“It’s not something we’re afraid of,” Kaplowitz said. “We’re going to face up to it.”
Johnson said he expects to issue his report by Aug. 15.
HUD has withheld about $20 million in community development and other grants to try to force the county to comply with the settlement. The grants go to Westchester municipalities and nonprofits to assist lower income residents and neighborhoods. The county is fighting the withdrawal of the grants in court.
The Board of Legislators is also working on legislation to give HUD a series of assurances about actions the county will take and policies it will enforce that the agency is requiring before it will release the withheld grants. Kaplowitz emphasized Wednesday that the legislation is still in draft form, but a potential sticking point could be the proposal to leave lawsuits against municipalities out of a required strategy to overcome exclusionary zoning. The requirement that the county consider lawsuits was written into the 2009 settlement.
It’s not yet clear whether there will be enough votes on the board to pass the legislation and override the expected veto.
“I think a lot of legislators want to see what the test comes back with,” Kaplowitz said.
Administration officials and Republican legislators have objected to the legislation because they say it incorporates past demands from HUD that expand the scope of the settlement, including making half of affordable housing units built with county support three bedroom. Legislator John Testa, R-Peekskill, said he’s concerned the county will be giving the federal government too much control over local zoning.
“We’re concerned about that,” he said. “We’re open minded. We’re looking for ways to help but we’re not going to give away our home rule.”
County Executive Rob Astorino, a Republican who is running for governor, has said the county will leave the Community Development Block Grant Program and the related grant programs that led to the original lawsuit against the county and replace them with a local grant program. But Kaplowitz said that program was dead on arrival because legislators don’t want their constituents taxed twice for the same grants.
Photo: Westchester Legislator Michael Kaplowitz discusses the Board of Legislators efforts to break the impasse in the 2009 fair housing settlement Wednesday. Elizabeth Ganga/The Journal News