On Wednesday, before a packed Town Hall in Bedford, the League of Women Voters presented, “Everything You want to Know about Fair and Affordable Housing – Who’s involved, Why Here and Why Now?” But the obvious controversy that the issue can hold was for the most part not evident. Nonetheless, the format wasn't taking any chances.
“This is not really a debate,” said County Legislator Peter Harckham, "the purpose here is to educate and put aside some of the misconceptions and misunderstandings." As such, a panel of six officials and developers each gave a five minute presentation, before the forumwas opened to questions from the audience.
Janet Hostetler of HUD introduced the education in the form of the settlement with Westchester County that satisfied the questions, why here and why now. With the county facing a liability of $150 million from the federal government, she said, the 2009 agreement calls for the creation of 750 affordable housing units across the county.
A more in depth determination of why Westchester stems from the HUD findings that 31 communities in Westchester have little or no minority representation. While the causes of segregation in the 20th and 21st centuries are different, said Hostetler, "the absence of opportunity for minorities is the common factor." That said, the introduction of diversity, as HUD sees it, can only serve to make communities stronger, while an upgrade in economic competitiveness is the by product.
As it stands, Westchester County’s commitment to affordable housing is nothing new, according to Mary Mahon, Special Assistant to the County Executive. "The county has received 49 awards over the last 25 years and currently has 540 units in the pipeline," she stated in her remarks.
In the interim, the word on affordable housing must be spread as to encourage diversity. “Units have to be marketed to those least likely to apply in the nine surrounding counties,” said Mahon.
Of the 9000 people who have visited the county website in search of affordable housing, 29% are white, and 41% African American - with one third not specifying, according to Norma Drummond, but her job as Deputy Commissioner of the Planning Department involves more in this regard. "We’re not just marketing the units," she said, "We’re providing a bigger picture campaign, making sure Westchester is a welcoming community and ensuring that new residents know how to seek help in cases of discrimination."
Developer Bill Balter of Wilder Balter Partners weighed in for his part and identified the most challenging obstacle to building in Northern Westchester. Currently overseeing the Roundtop affordable housing development in Cortlandt, he said, a lack of infrastructure – especially sewage treatment systems –
As for the human element, from his observation, the fear in regards to who will occupy housing can often be dismissed rather seamlessly. A lot of times newcomers will already be part of the community as part of the local workforce, he said.
Federal Housing Monitor James Johnson, whose role is to ensure the settlement obligations are discharged, did not side step that important issue and clarified the concerns without mincing words. “Any time you have a discussion on race there’s ample room for misinformation and disinformation,” he said.
But he defended the upside of integration and the potential of having those misconceptions fall. “That’s the opportunity that’s created by affordable housing,” he said.
From the audience, Mt. Pleasant’s Jim Russell of "Save our Neighborhoods" gauged the outcomes presented as a rosy estimation of affordable housing, while higher crime is a factor that is sure to be ushered in.
In response, Ms. Hostetler countered that studies show no such data. At the same time, Mr. Johnson welcomed the tough query. “We sometimes tip toe around questions that are in the back of people’s minds,” he said, as he conceeded that integration has caused friction in the past.
But he was adamant about the strengthening effect it has on communities, while referring the questioner and the audience to a book called, "The Difference" by Scott Page.
A little less controversial, Bob Green of the North Castle Planning Board raised concerns about what would happen to projects when the counties requirement of 750 units is reached and whether funds will run out. “Developers shouldn’t be discouraged by the numbers because not all proposals will reach fruition,” said Ms. Drummond, "and there will be multiple efforts to stretch the money."
Additionally, given all the entanglements associated with DEP owned land and the New York City Watershed, the way forward is still very complex. But Mr. Balter believes with strong leadership the difficulties will pale in comparison to the end result. "Everyone will believe what we accomplished will be well worth it," he concluded.
My article originally appeared in the Westchester Guardian