Given the constant coverage on both News 12 and in the Westchester newspapers surrounding the continuing discussions of the Westchester County Affordable Housing Settlement, an update on Bronxville’s role is warranted.
As a recap, the stipulation agreement was the result of settling a lawsuit brought by the Anti-Discrimination Center of New York, a non-profit advocacy and litigation group. The Department of Justice and the Department of Housing and Urban Development joined as parties against Westchester County.
The lawsuit was based on the False Claims Act with the plaintiff arguing successfully that when the County received Community Development Block Grants and HUD funds for affordable housing between 2000 and 2006, County Executive Andrew Spano’s office stated in writing that they had complied with mandates to encourage affordable housing, when they had not. In essence, the suit was based on falsifying documents.
Though not a party to the suit as well as completely unaware of the litigation, the Village of Bronxville learned of our involvement via reading the local newspaper.
Though the fourth most integrated county in the state, trailing only Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx, Westchester was the first county to be sued under the “false claim” premise. Current HUD officials have told us that HUD is “actively investigating” 20 other counties throughout the nation on the same grounds, and HUD plans to “utilize the settlement in Westchester” as a blueprint for the nation.
Under the terms of the agreement, Westchester County must spend $50 million and agree to build or acquire 750 affordable housing units in seven years. Of the units, 630 must be in the 24 communities, which includes Bronxville, where black residents represent less than 3 percent of the population and Hispanics less than 7 percent.
Of the 750 units, 75 percent must be new construction and 50 percent must be rental units with no more than 25 percent for senior housing. A family of four could earn up to $53,000 to qualify for a rental unit and earnings up to $75,000 would allow home ownership. Communities are prohibited from giving preference for this housing to members of their local workforce such as policemen, nurses or teachers. Rather, the units must be marketed to those “least likely to apply” per the consent agreement.
The agreement does not state a per capita distribution or assignments of units to each individual community.
Given the above parameters, the trustees, Village Administrator Porr and I realized the seriousness of our obligation under the agreement and have worked diligently to find affordable units in our village. We have contacted our local realtors who have been extremely helpful, visited properties and brought county representatives to view village options. As of this time, none of our offerings have proven economically feasible to the county.
In an effort to meet our obligation, we thought the rental route might be the most economically viable and many of our landlords were anxious to help us out after understanding the settlement agreement. However, the major stumbling block has proven to be a provision in the agreement that states, “Such units shall be controlled by deed restrictions or other legal measures to ensure that they remain affordable to and occupied by eligible households for a period of no less than 50 years.” I petitioned HUD via the settlement monitor to reduce this requirement to 10 years which is still a lifetime in rental real estate but was denied. We continue to work cooperatively with the county to identify properties despite the constraints.
On a parallel tract, the settlement agreement requires the designated communities to adopt a “model ordinance” in local zoning laws that promotes affordable housing. There is a concern that this “one size fits all” zoning requirement from HUD runs contrary to the provisions of the New York State Constitution which codifies the right of home rule which grants local governments the power to engage in policy making concerning local municipal matters.
In addition, our current zoning and planning codes must be evaluated to ensure that they are non-discriminatory. To comply with this provision, village counsel reviewed our codes as well as Westchester County planning department experts. Neither found any exclusionary zoning. In the spirit of cooperation and compliance, we hired an outside independent planner to conduct a third review and are awaiting his comments.
Village representatives have also attended every meeting with HUD and county officials to which we were invited as well as multiple workshops to better understand the multiple requirements of the settlement that affect Bronxville.
The village government is committed to abide by the stipulations as contained within the four corners of the agreement signed in 2009.