Phil Reisman Column Below, October 12, 2014 – – The Journal News

Reisman: HUD is the real ‘impediment’ in housing fracas

President Obama visited Westchester twice this year — first to laud the building of the new Tappan Zee Bridge and then to collect money from some extremely rich donors.

His visits were emblematic of the region’s strategic importance, both in commerce and political influence.

I’d like to invite him back a third time.

Obama is a good explainer on the delicate matter of race relations. In fact, few are better at it than he is.

So here’s a challenge: I want the president to come here and in plain language cut through the jargon-laden B.S. that permeates the dispute between the county and the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.

HUD works for Obama.

He’s the chief. It’s up to the man in charge to explain how Westchester got into this legal mess — and more importantly, it’s up to him to articulate a fair way for the county to get out of it.

Why should he do this? Because the Beltway ciphers at HUD won’t.

They are uncompromising and intractable. There are people walking the halls of the County Office Building in White Plains who are acting in good faith, but they are beating their heads against an immoveable bureaucratic wall. In unofficial conversation they are, out of frustration, reversing the letters in the HUD acronym to “Duh.”

County Executive Rob Astorino has taken heat on this issue, and not all of it, frankly, has been unjustified. At least he has consistently articulated his views in clear, precise terms. HUD certainly hasn’t.

Wait, I forgot. Al Sharpton said something last March at a Mount Vernon church — though what he said didn’t make a lot of sense. A voice of reason may be required, but not from this tiresome huckster.

All of this stems from a lawsuit filed in 2007, charging that the county had failed to “affirmatively further fair housing” after receiving millions of dollars of grant money from HUD. The funds were divvied up among dozens of municipalities, which were supposed to provide affordable housing opportunities for minorities. Only that didn’t happen.

Andy Spano, a liberal Democrat who was county executive at the time, initially wanted to fight the lawsuit. His aide, Susan Tolchin, told The New York Times that the lawsuit was “garbage,” adding that the feds failed to understand that the county didn’t have control over local land use.

Sensing that the case was ultimately unwinnable, the Spano administration settled it out of court and then Astorino inherited the settlement after defeating Spano in the election.

It’s been torture ever since.

A key piece of the settlement was the building of 750 affordable housing units in 31 predominantly white municipalities, to be made available to minorities, but not necessarily to the exclusion of white applicants.

Despite some philosophical objections concerning free market economics, this proved to be the easy part of the deal. Indeed, the county is well ahead of schedule on the housing component.

But HUD isn’t playing fair, and here’s how:

Another part of the settlement calls for an analysis of impediments, a detailed and complex document that is supposed to examine how local zoning laws may be racially discriminatory. The county came up with eight separate AIs, each of which HUD rejected. Astorino has complained that the agency’s posture is to never offer its own conclusions.

“HUD’s approach,” he said, “is for others to do all the work and then the agency criticizes their findings endlessly, hoping they will eventually capitulate from exhaustion, legal threats or the withholding of federal funds.”

Then in late September, HUD crossed into the zone of federal overreach by rejecting a zoning report by Jim Johnson, an attorney who was hired to monitor the settlement. In effect, Johnson is a referee.

His report said that only six communities had zoning that potentially violated the fair housing law. At long last it appeared there was a beacon of light.

But HUD wanted expunged any language in Johnson’s assessment that implied that the other municipalities were off the hook.

Astorino isn’t the only one who is frustrated by this.

Mike Kaplowitz, a moderate-leaning Democrat from Somers and chairman of the Board of Legislators was incredulous when he said, “HUD cannot … forever and ever keep a microscope on these communities. … The monitor is who we stand with. The monitor gave us a path to victory.”

It turns out that the real impediment in that path is HUD itself.

The housing contretemps has been raised in the governor’s race, particularly from the incumbent Andrew Cuomo, the former head of HUD and a resident of affluent New Castle. One of his campaign commercials tied Astorino’s stance with the days of Jim Crow in the South, which is an absurd claim that serves no purpose other than to further polarize the county. Enough is enough.

It’s time for the president to show some leadership and stop the madness. Duh.

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