On Friday, federal officials rejected Westchester County's plans for complying with a housing settlement designed to increase diversity in some of the county's predominately white communities, including Rye.
The $51 million settlement requires the county to build 750 affordable housing units in up to 31 communities, including Rye City and Rye Brook, over the next seven years.
"The primary shortcoming of the current implementation plan is a lack of specificity with respect to accountability, timeframes, and processes," James Johnson, the federal monitor overseeing the settlement, said in a letter (see attached PDF) to County Executive Robert Astorino. The plan "also lacks any concrete timeframe, and is unnecessarily vague on the whole."
The county now has until March 12 to submit a new plan. Johnson is set to meet with county officials Tuesday.
Astorino spokesman Ned McCormack said the county is working with the monitor and other federal officials to resolve the issues.
The county's plan, which was released last month, includes model legislation and zoning and building ordinances and possible methods of education and outreach to African American and Hispanic populations. It does not, however, detail the distribution of the units throughout eligible communities.
Rye has two affordable housing projects in the works. 'Affordable' housing is generally defined as that which costs less than one-third of a working family's total income. The City is close to approving a plan to add up to 16 three-bedroom units to an existing strip of nine affordable homes on Cottage Street. There will be a public hearing Feb. 24 on that proposal.
Mayor Doug French said the city is also in talks with Lazz Development, the company that built the existing Cottage Street houses, to build up to 25 affordable homes on the corner of Theodore Fremd Avenue and North Street. The homes would cost upwards of $200,000.
Rye Brook Mayor Joan Feinstein said at the village's Feb. 10 board meeting that Rye Brook will seek residents' opinion before moving forward with any housing plans.
"We know that in the next seven years that Rye Brook and other villages and towns that are subject to the decree will have to be proactive and have affordable housing initiatives put in place," Feinstein said.
"We are already looking at this and a determination will be made after public input about possible locations for affordable housing," she added. "We will also probably have to have text amendments to our code to deal with this situation."
Federal officials criticized the county for failing to come up with ways to overcome municipal resistance to affordable housing development.
Mayor French said that very little detail has been given to municipalities regarding the settlement, and that even the County Board of Legislators was asked to approve the settlement last year with little information.
He added that any discussion about making housing more affordable has to include ways to lower property taxes, which often drive up the costs of homeownership enough to make living in places like Rye prohibitively expensive.
The settlement was the result of a lawsuit against the county by the Anti-Discrimination Center, a non-profit civil rights group. The ADC contended that Westchester had failed to live up to its end of a deal that grants counties federal housing funds as long as the county will "affirmatively further fair housing" through anti-discrimination legislation and affordable housing development.
The county stood to lose up to $300 million in the suit, but then-County Executive Andrew Spano brokered the deal with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that was then approved by the County Board of Legislators.
In a report released last week, the ADC continued to excoriate the county, both for its implementation plan and its general housing practices.
"ADC believes that Westchester decided on an approach whereby its initial submissions would serve as a tool of negotiation," the group said in the report. "That is, Westchester would submit a set of documents that are entirely inadequate with the hope that the monitor [Johnson] would agree to a 'compromise' position."
Craig Gurian, executive director of the Anti-Discrimination Center, told Patch this week the center's lawsuit against the county was based on solid facts and that the county needs to make a greater effort to diversify.
"We focused on facts on the ground, and the facts on the ground are that Westchester County is a deeply segregated county," Gurian said. "And if people want to suggest that neighborhood patterns just happen to turn out like that, then they are ignoring a wealth of history and evidence to the contrary."
"These patterns don't change by themselves," he said. "They change when there's a push, and that's what this settlement is."