Forum on Affordable Housing Highlights Goals, Progress and Concerns

“It’s great to have all the major players together in the same room” was one of the most commonly voiced sentiments at the Affordable Housing Forum held December 6 at the Rye Free Reading Room.

Published December 15, 2011 5:13 PM
4 min read

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“It’s great to have all the major players together in the same room” was one of the most commonly voiced sentiments at the Affordable Housing Forum held December 6 at the Rye Free Reading Room.

 

By Bill Lawyer

“It’s great to have all the major players together in the same room” was one of the most commonly voiced sentiments at the Affordable Housing Forum held December 6 at the Rye Free Reading Room.

The array of “players” included the mayors of Rye, Port Chester, and Rye Brook, two HUD officials, two County officials, a local builder, and as one audience member put it, the occupier of  “the affordable housing throne”, Federal Housing Monitor James Johnson. Johnson was appointed by the federal court to oversee the County’s compliance with the terms of the lawsuit settlement that the County reached in 2007.

Program moderator Gary Zuckerman began by explaining that the County had been sued under the federal false claims act, because it asserted to have promoted affordable housing in return for receiving federal community block grant awards. He added that if the County had not agreed to a settlement of spending over $51 million to build 750 affordable housing units in the 31 “eligible” municipalities with the greatest need that were the least racially diverse, they might have been fined from $200 to $500 million.  

 

The first speaker was Janet Hostetler, senior advisor to HUD’s Assistant Secretary for Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity. She reminded everyone the settlement was voluntarily agreed to by the County. Her main concern at this point was the “AI” process – analysis of impediments (things getting in the way of the completion of the terms of the agreement). She said the terms of the settlement might be clarified to require that half of all the units built have three bedrooms, since the County expressed the need for affordable family housing. She is waiting for the County to come up with a proposal regarding this issue.  

 

Mary Mahon, County Executive Rob Astorino’s Senior Assistant for Affordable Housing and Real Estate, took the positive approach of enumerating what the County is doing to comply with the settlement. She stressed their outreach and assistance to the communities involved, and the fact that the County’s affordable housing construction projects are ahead of schedule.  

 

Mayor Doug French said that Rye is in the process of completing its third fair and affordable housing project, and plans are beginning for another. He thanked the County for their help.  

 

Two of the evening’s main concerns focused on Port Chester and were voiced by Mayor Dennis Pilla. He said it was “unfair” for Port Chester to be excluded from the settlement funding process, because it already has affordable housing and a diverse population.  

 

Mayor Pilla noted it might turn out that Rye Brook would build affordable housing in part of the Village that is within the Port Chester School District, which he said means their already crowded schools would become even more so.

 

Mayor Feinstein agreed with Mayor Pilla’s comments, but stressed that Rye Brook is taking the proactive approach of looking for potential affordable housing sites. “Our big concern is: what if no developers come?”  

 

Norma Drummond of the County Planning Department attempted to reassure Mayor Feinstein the County is working hard to enable all the “chosen” communities to find developers willing to take on projects. Over 200 possible sites have been identified. Foreclosed properties are another possibility. She also brought up another major concern – how do you define “fair” in regards to affordable housing?

 

The key to this, according to HUD officials, is marketing. All eligible persons or families must have the same opportunity to compete for the available units. This means extensive advertising and outreach on all fronts.  

 

The County has set up a website, where anyone interested in opportunities for affordable housing can register and obtain information, counseling, and assistance. Nearly 1,500 people have done so to date. They are receiving inquiries from all over the eastern United States.  

Moderator Zuckerman raised the question of whether, as many newspaper articles have suggested, the municipalities are dragging their heels – particularly with regard to zoning issues. Mahon said no municipality has refused to comply and that many are considering the 5?-page “model ordinance” the County drafted in August 2010 that will facilitate the compliance process.  

 

Housing Monitor Johnson took a broad view, relating his family’s move from a small apartment in Newark to better housing in Montclair, New Jersey in the 1970s. He said that “strivers” such as his parents are a real asset to any community, and he felt that Westchester municipalities should focus on the positive gains that can come from fair, affordable housing. For him, “the bricks and mortar” are just the beginning.

 

Nevertheless, questions from the audience focused on the settlement being an “unfunded mandate” as it relates to the impact on school costs. Builder Lou Larizza noted he is often seen as “the bad guy” by neighbors of affordable housing projects. He challenged anyone to come look at his finished products and see that they are an enhancement to their communities.  

Note: For all the facts on Westchester County’s affordable housing settlement, visit  homes.westchestergov.com/ resources/housing-settlement.

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