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Federal Judge Says Westchester Must Hire Housing Consultant

Federal Housing Monitor James Johnson (far end of table) at a meeting with the Westchester County Board of Legislators. In his last report, Johnson recommended legal action against seven Westchester communities over its housing laws.
Federal Housing Monitor James Johnson (far end of table) at a meeting with the Westchester County Board of Legislators. In his last report, Johnson recommended legal action against seven Westchester communities over its housing laws. Photo Credit: Daily Voice file

This story has been updated.

WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. -- A federal judge on Friday ordered Westchester County government to hire a consultant to comply with a 10-year-old federal housing discrimination lawsuit, saying the county "just walked away from the process."

But a spokesman for Westchester County Rob Astorino, who argues the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is "overreaching" while trying to change local zoning laws, said the county will appeal Friday's ruling.

During a hearing in Manhattan, U.S. District Judge Denise Cote said Westchester must hire a consultant by Aug. 7 to complete reports required in its affordable housing agreement with HUD. HUD and its court-appointed monitor have rejected eight prior reports as inadequate.

 Attorneys representing Astorino -- whose administration inherited the settlement -- and seven towns that HUD and its court-appointed monitor James Johnson argue have not complied with the agreement -- say the federal government continues to overstep its authority. The county is required to complete "Analysis of impediments" -- or AI reports -- detailing obstacles to completing affordable housing projects in its mostly white suburban towns and villages.

HUD and Johnson have called eight AI reports filed by the county inadequate, although Johnson acknowledged in May that Westchester and various towns and villages were meeting new housing goals set by the HUD agreement.

"Beyond that, opportunities were lost for citizenry and others who might want to live in the county," Judge Cote said on Friday, adding: "That's sad."

Ned McCormack, a spokesman for Astorino, said the county will comply with Cote's ruling to hire a consultant, but will appeal her order. 

"The county plans to appeal and ask for an immediate stay of the Judge’s order," McCormack said on Saturday. "In the meantime, as an act of good faith, we will move to find a consultant to work with the county on the Analysis of Impediments."

Judge Cote said Westchester has not done enough to compile AI reports satisfactory to HUD's monitor and attorneys.

In March, Johnson accused Westchester County officials of spreading demonstrably false information about the settlement agreement, undermining the process. Judge Cote, in a June 27 ruling, agreed with Johnson, writing that Astorino "intentionally generated fear that increasing available affordable housing and modifying exclusionary zoning laws would change neighborhoods for the worse."

In May, the U.S. Justice Department followed up on Johnson's recommendation that it sue seven communities in Westchester County: Croton-on-Hudson, Harrison, Lewisboro, Pelham Manor, Larchmont, North Castle and Rye Brook. Johnson argued that communities have “zoning that could result in liability” and that “the Department of Justice is encouraged to give serious consideration to bringing legal action against one or more of these municipalities.”

Under the terms of the 2009 settlement reached between HUD and county government, Westchester is required to spend at least $51.6 million to develop 750 units of affordable housing by the end of this year in 31 mostly white communities.

McCormack, Astorino's spokesman, said, "The county has already done eight AI submissions, backed by thousands of pages of objective data, that are by far the most comprehensive AIs ever submitted to HUD – the AI required for all of New York State was only 60 pages – and HUD no longer requires AIs for any municipality, having eliminating them as ineffective."

McCormack added, "The county is being asked to meet a standard that no longer exists and even at that the county has done more than any other municipality to meet it. By any fair or rational basis, the county has met its obligation."

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