2017 Apr: Developments in the Fair Housing Consent Decree

In 2017 Feb, Judge Denise Polk appointed former U.S. District Judge Stephen Robinson to replace Jim Johnson as the fair housing Monitor to monitor Westchester's compliance (or lack thereof) with the federal consent decree entered in 2009.

In 1988, HUD began requiring municipalities receiving federal community block grant funding to conduct an “analysis of impediments.”

Then, in 2009 Feb, a federal court ruled that Westchester County had “utterly failed” to meet its obligations to “affirmatively further fair housing,” and that certifications that it had done so were “false or fraudulent.” A consent decree was entered, in which Westchester agreed to spend at least $51 million to develop 750 units of affordable housing, educate the public about fair housing, and analyze the local housing market to find roadblocks to fair housing choice. The decree set Dec 9 of that year as the due date for producing an analysis of impediments.

Since then, the County has submitted 10 attempts at an acceptable analysis of impediments. HUD has rejected each attempt as inadequate. The most recent rejection came on 2017 Apr 10. More than seven years after the original deadline, and approaching 30 years since HUD initiated the requirement of analyses of impediments, Westchester County remains out of compliance.

The Trump administration has pushed for Westchester to comply with the settlement, and the requirements of the US Fair Housing Act.

On Apr 21, Westchester's attorney argued before Judge Guido Calabresi of the 2nd U.S. Court of Appeals in Manhattan that HUD had been “unreasonable” in rejecting the the County's most recent attempt at an analysis.

Calabresi wasn't buying it. He
"angrily accused the county of failing to fully meet obligations under a consent decree to build affordable housing that can be marketed to nonwhites....'You know, I rarely get angry but it seems to me that what is going on is consistent evasion, consistent trying each time to find something new why you shouldn't live up to something that you agreed to. And that is bad when parties do it. It is outrageous when the government does it," Calabresi said, raising his voice.'" (Associated Press)
A week later the three-judge panel handed down its unanimous and scathing ruling: Westchester County “is engaging in total obstructionism.” The county has now lost seven appeals to the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals.


"Appeals Judge Angrily Scolds Westchester in NY Housing Case" (AP, 2017 Apr 21)

"New Westchester Housing Monitor Stephen Robinson Ready to Dive into Case" (LoHud: The Journal News, 2017 Apr 21)

"Court Finds 'Total Obstructionism' by Westchester in Housing Case" (LoHud: The Journal News, 2017 Apr 28)


Buchanan Notches Big Affordable Housing Win

Rev. Troy DeCohen of Interfaith Clergy for Social Action, right, meets with developer Glenn Griffin, left,
and Alexander Roberts (Photo: David McKay Wilson/The Journal News)
Buchanan approved a zone change for 42 senior apartments after housing activist Alexander Roberts threatened to sue the village. Article by David McKay Wilson, originally published in Lohud: The Journal News, 2016 Jun 16

Documents and earlier articles referenced in this article:
Letter from James E Johnson to Rob Astorino (2015 Dec 15)
Letter from Alexander Roberts to Rob Astorino (2015 Nov 24)
Times Square hero opposes Buchanan senior housing (2015 Nov 20)
No affordable housing in Harrison plans (2014 Nov 20)

In Buchanan, the opposition to affordable housing for seniors was so strong last fall that one of Westchester’s leading builders simply walked away.

Bill Balter said he was unwilling to invest any more in what looked like a losing proposition.

But seven months later, things are different.

With Community Housing Innovations Executive Director Alexander Roberts taking the lead, the Buchanan Village Board, by a single vote, last week agreed to a zoning change that allows the 42-unit project, including 35 affordable units, to proceed for planning board review.

If the project is approved, it would help Westchester County meet its federal fair-housing goal.

A combination of factors changed the narrative, including a Tax Watch column that exposed the opposition, and the flip-flop of Times Square hero Duane Jackson, now a Buchanan village trustee, who once backed housing there.

There also was Roberts’ outreach to federal housing monitor James Johnson, Johnson’s intervention, and Roberts’ knack for hardball negotiation, which included threatening Buchanan with a lawsuit under the U.S. Fair Housing Act.

The Column

Roberts, a former WPIX television newsman, contacted Tax Watch in early November about what he’d heard in Buchanan. It seemed that a local landowner, Glenn Griffin, who had a contract with Balter to develop the site, had been stymied in his bid to win approval for 66 senior units on a seven-acre parcel that the village Planning Board in 2014 had recommended be rezoned for affordable senior housing. It was located just north of an entrance to the Indian Point nuclear complex, and just across the road from a Hudson River park.

It seemed like a no-brainer for the tiny village along the Hudson. But Mayor Theresa Knickerbocker was adamant in her opposition, as were many residents of Buchanan who didn’t like that the housing would be advertised to people living as far as away as New York City.

The column quoted Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino saying he wouldn’t sue the village – among the options the county had agreed to use to get affordable housing built under the federal housing consent decree.

The Housing Monitor

Housing monitor James Johnson, appointed to oversee Westchester County’s compliance with the county’s 2009 fair housing consent decree, has been an engaged Tax Watch reader for years. He sprang to action in 2014 after Tax Watch detailed how the town of Harrison opposed affordable housing in the 143-unit apartment complex at the Harrison Metro-North station ("No Affordable Housing in Harrison Plans," 2014 Nov 20). Johnson demanded action by Astorino, whose intervention eventually helped lead to the inclusion of seven affordable units.

Three weeks after the Buchanan Tax Watch column was published, Johnson cited it when reminding Astorino about the settlement (letter of 2015 Dec 15), which required the county to use “all available means” to counter municipal opposition.

The Negotiation

Buchanan opponents turned out in force in March to denounce the project, with some citing Astorino’s position that local home rule gave municipalities the right to oppose housing they didn’t like. Others taunted Roberts about the proposal as well as the fake fur-lined leather coat he wore that evening.

But Roberts had supporters too, including members of the Interfaith Clergy for Social Action of Westchester.

Following the hearing, Roberts worked with the village to find common ground, lowering the proposal's density to 42 units on seven acres.

He also urged Astorino to intervene publicly to support the plan (letter of 2015 Nov 24), letting the village know that local opposition could violate state and federal law.

I’d asked Astorino whether he planned to testify at the March hearing. He told me he had no such plans, saying that the people of Buchanan knew he supported it. He subsequently met privately with Knickerbocker, the mayor, to convey his position.

Astorino spokesman Ned McCormack said the county's executive's cooperative approach helped turn the tide.

"The county supported affordable housing in Buchanan and worked cooperatively with village officials to produce a positive result — a zoning change approved by the Village Board that allows for 35 affordable units,' he wrote in an email message. "As it turned out, there was no need for a (public) letter (of support) because the County and Village were in regular communication as the proposal moved forward."

June Showdown

The Buchanan Village Board had planned to vote on the zoning change in May, but the absence of two members pushed the meeting to June.

Roberts suggested that he was prepared to sue the village — with the possibility of substantial damages — if it voted down the zoning change that its own planning board had recommended.

Roberts, it turns out, had adopted the advocacy role that Westchester had promised to take on when it signed the consent decree in 2009. He showed the enduring truth of Martin Luther King’s theory for advancement in the fight for civil rights: "We have not made a single gain in civil rights without determined legal and nonviolent pressure.”

To show the housing movement’s resolve, Roberts had rallied the clergy and housing advocates to attend the June 7 meeting. He canceled the call after village officials told him such a show of support might backfire.

The board ultimately voted 3-2 to approve the zoning change, with Deputy Mayor Richard Funchion joining Nicolas Zachary and Cesare Pasquale in favor, while Jackson and Knickerbocker, unswayed by Astorino's outreach, continued to oppose it.

Funchion made no mention of Astorino's backroom diplomacy. But he acknowledged that Roberts’ threat to sue changed his mind.

“I will vote yes only because of the strong-arm tactics of Alexander Roberts, who would use the might of the federal government to sue the village,” he said. “If we try to fight it, I think that the government will come against us, and make us the poster child for something this village does not represent. It’s not about we don’t want ‘those people.’ We have ‘those people.’ We have all sorts of different people here.”

The plan now goes for site-plan review before the village Planning Board, which in 2014 suggested that putting affordable senior housing on Broadway was a great idea.

“I believe board members on both sides acted out of love for their community,” Roberts said. “But now that the issue is settled, we should work together to heal the wounds and ensure that the housing becomes a proud part of the village.”


Housing Monitor Issues Supplement with ICSA Testimony

James E. Johnson, the monitor appointed to observe and assess Westchester County's compliance with the August 2009 consent decree, has issued: Supplement to the Monitor's Third Biennial Assessment of Westchester County's Compliance (CLICK HERE.)

ICSA submitted testimony, which became the exhibit to this Supplement. In our cover letter of 2016 May 11, addressed to James E. Johnson, ICSA said:
We, members of Interfaith Clergy for Social Action of Westchester organization who have been studying the affordable housing situation in Westchester County, wish to provide you with the attached pages of testimony. We think these words speak clearly and eloquently about the need for Westchester County to move forward more vigorously to help provide decent and affordable housing opportunities to all its citizens. We also believe they put a “human face” on the statistics about the persons who seek the promise of a decent home but who have come up empty-handed. As court-appointed Monitor to the “Stipulation and Order of Settlement and Dismissal, No. 6 Civ. 2860 (DLC),” we believe you will find this testimony relevant as you determine what more needs to be done to fulfill the County’s requirements outlined in that 2009 Consent Decree.

We have included two kinds of testimony. We share stories of real people we know who suffer real consequences from not being able to find affordable housing as well as those who have found security and a place of belonging once housing is obtained. And, we share some of our thoughts on what kind of community Westchester should intend to be, or become.

The quotation from the Book of Proverbs at the top of this page helps us sort out the thorny connection between vision and law, between the portion of the Consent Decree that can be measured in affordable housing units created, and its larger vision of honoring the spirit and goals of the historic 1968 Federal Fair Housing Act.

We urge you, Mr. Counselor, to be a bold interpreter of the law. Do not forget the vision of justice, of blessedness, of beloved community, that bring happiness to all those who pursue it.

Yours sincerely,
The Rev. Troy DeCohen, Senior Pastor, Mt. Vernon Heights Congregational Church
Rabbi Shira Milgrom, Congregation Kol Ami, White Plains
Bart Worden, Clergy Leader, Ethical Culture Society, White Plains
The Rev. Dr. Betty Tom, First Presbyterian Church, Mt. Vernon
The Rev. Michael B. Gerald, Pastor, Shiloh Baptist Church, Tuckahoe
The Rev. Noelle Damico, United Church of Christ Metro Association, White Plains

To read the complete ICSA testimony: CLICK HERE.


Report: Housing, Lending Discrimination Persist in Area

Article below refers to these two recent reports:

Westchester Residential Opportunities, Inc., Fair Housing in the Hudson Valley Region: Testing Report 2012-2015.

Westchester Residential Opportunities, Inc. Fair Lending in the Lower Hudson Valley: Testing Report 2013-14.

Akiko Matsuda, Lohud: The Journal News, 2016 May 5

The investigations were funded by grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Discrimination persists in mortgage lending and housing in the Lower Hudson Valley, potentially making it harder for certain groups of people to find homes here, according to two reports issued this week.

The reports were released by Westchester Residential Opportunities, a nonprofit with offices in White Plains and Mount Vernon, and were based on investigations funded by grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

"We're very concerned that there's very limited affordable and accessible housing in Westchester," said Marlene Zarfes, WRO’s fair-housing director. "By doing this study, what we're seeing is (that) discrimination still exists among many protected classes including race, familial status — which means people with children — disability and source of income."

For the mortgage-lending study, which covered the years 2013 and 2014, the nonprofit conducted 50 tests, sending trained testers to branches of major mortgage lenders in 31 predominantly white communities in Westchester, as well as Ramapo, Clarkstown and Orangetown in Rockland County.

The nonprofit used different testing methodology to evaluate lenders' performance depending on prospective borrowers' status, including disability, family status, military service, national origin and race. To determine potential impacts of race, for example, two sets of testers — one minority and the other white — were sent to the same lender to assess whether they were treated dfferenttly.

Forty-six percent of those tests showed "disparate treatment on the basis of race, national origin, disability or familial status," the report reads. Among the 23 based on race, 13 were found to be unfair. Examples of unequal practices included lenders' offering borrowers different loan terms and conditions, different interest rates or fees, and different policies.

"As the results of our testing program indicate, discrimination may continue to impede housing choices and opportunities in the Lower Hudson Valley today, 47 years after the passage of the federal Fair Housing Act," the report concluded.

The names of the lenders were not disclosed in the report, which angered one local advocate.

"The WRO report is evidence of pernicious discrimination in some of the most 'liberal' communities which are in the county of Westchester but in the state of denial," said Alexander Roberts, executive director of Community Housing Innovations in White Plains. "The public also has a right to know the identity of the banks that discriminate. Why are they being protected?"

Geoffrey Anderson, WRO's executive director, said although the names weren't disclosed, the lenders were made aware of — and were receptive to — the findings.

Marianne Collins, executive director of the New York Mortgage Bankers Association, questioned the findings, saying that lending officers, particularly those who work with major banks, have been intensively trained on various regulations, including the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, the Fair Housing Act and the Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. Moreover, lending officers have no incentive to discriminate, she said.

"They work on commission, so they want to make every loan they can possibly make. There would be no reason to turn someone down that was deserving of a loan," Collins said.

Collins questioned the testers' qualifications, saying that the four-hour training provided by WRO can't be enough to teach them about how to assess the performance of lending officers in a complex process.

Zarfes, WRO's fair housing director, said the testing method the group used was the industry standard and has been approved by the U.S. Supreme Court.

For the housing study, the nonprofit conducted 234 tests in the Lower Hudson Valley between 2012 and 2015, sending testers who posed as potential home buyers or apartment renters. A total of 73 cases, or about 31 percent, were found to be unfair, according to the report.

Discrimination was found on the basis of race, source of income — either employment or government programs such as disability and Section 8 — and family status.

Willie Trotman, president of the Spring Valley branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said he was not surprised.

"Cliche goes, 'Green allows you to live anywhere,' meaning if you've got the money, you can live anywhere. But you realize that's not the case," he said. "Even in 2016, that's not the case."

Twitter: @LohudAkiko

How to file a complaint

If you believe your civil rights have been violated as you try to buy or rent a house or apartment, or as you try to take out a mortgage, call Westchester Residential Opportunities at 914-428-4507. Or you can directly file a fair housing/lending complaint through the HUD website (http://portal.hud.gov/hudportal/HUD?src=/topics/housing_discrimination).



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