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County Claims 'Harassment,' Politics In New Fed Housing Penalty

Ned McCormack, communications director for County Executive Rob Astorino, said, "Westchester County believes it's in compliance. There's no basis for this action other than harassment." Photo Credit: File photo
Federal Monitor Jim Johnson (far end of table) meets with Westchester County legislators. Photo Credit: Brian Donnelly
U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara's office filed a new legal action on Tuesday which could trigger monthly fines and other penalties against Westchester County for not meeting benchmarks in an affordable housing settlement. The county called it harassment. Photo Credit: File photo

WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. -- Federal officials continue to send mixed messages -- praising Westchester County for its progress on building affordable housing -- and then coming up with surprise punishments, a spokesman for County Executive Rob Astorino said Thursday.

Ned McCormack, communications director for County Executive Rob Astorino, said, "Westchester County believes it's in compliance. There's no basis for this action other than harassment. The Justice Department is complaining that Chappaqua, N.Y., the home of Hillary Clinton, is guilty of housing discrimination."

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, also a Democrat, lives in the town of New Castle, which includes Chappaqua. Astorino, a Republican from Hawthorne in Mount Pleasant, ran an unsuccessful campaign against Cuomo last year.

In this U.S. District Court filing on Tuesday, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara's office said Westchester County violated the terms of its 2009 fair housing settlement and should face new punishment. Possible penalties include contempt of court, monthly fines of $60,000 and putting $1.65 million in escrow until court-ordered sanctions are lifted.

During years of legal appeals, Westchester was expected to have financing in place for 450 units of affordable housing by the end of 2014. A U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) monitor overseeing its settlement agreement with the county said it fell short of that goal because 28 units in the Chappaqua Station development in New Castle should not be counted. Westchester believes 454 units were funded, including the Chappaqua project, according to McCormack.

In Tuesday's court filing, Assistant U.S. Attorney David J. Kennedy agrees with the HUD monitor and suggests enforcement action to make Westchester comply. County government could be ordered to pay huge monthly fines if a federal judge rules the county misses benchmarks at a housing development called Chappaqua Station. 

McCormack said the proposed federal punishment ignores progress at Chappaqua Station, including developer Conifer filing for building permits on July 1. He said that Westchester has been working cooperatively with local officials including finance arrangements, "essentially the same" as other affordable housing projects countywide.. "We're at the final lap of this thing. It's moving forward because the county is moving forward,'' McCormack said. 

Westchester agreed to build or obtain 750 units of affordable housing in 31 towns and villages to promote fair housing to settle a 2006 lawsuit.

Astorino has argued that the federal government overstepped by telling town and village governments how to zone and enforce local housing laws -- and punishing other Westchester communities by withholding millions in community development block grants.

Daily Voice will have more about the federal court filing and other county reaction Friday.


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