Under an agreement between Westchester County and federal government agencies, the Village of Larchmont, the Town of Mamaroneck and 29 other Westchester communities, will be asked to create inclusive and affordable housing on a “no excuses basis.”
In the process they may have to “manufacture” sites: over downtown stores, by renovating older buildings, through conversion of single-family dwellings into multiple apartments or by new construction.
This is the message two county administrators, a county legislative representative and a local housing agency head told the Local Summit at its meeting on October 20th at the Nautilus Diner.
Hold People’s Feet to the Fire
The speakers were asked to explain the impact on the community of the desegregation/affordable housing agreement signed by Westchester with the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Justice Department on September 23. Under the settlement, the county agreed to create some 750 units over a seven-year period that would be “affirmatively marketed” to African Americans and Hispanics in Westchester and New York City. The 2000 census showed these two minorities were vastly underrepresented in the 31 cited Westchester communities.
The agreement followed a suit filed three years ago by the Anti-Discrimination Center of Metro New York, a nonprofit advocacy and litigation group, accusing Westchester County of accepting federal grants to provide integrated housing, but not fulfilling this obligation. The county ultimately agreed to settle, without acceptance of blame, to avoid a costly, public jury trial. (See County Board OKs Fair Housing Settlement, Local Leaders Get Details.)
Ron Sims, deputy secretary of HUD, was quoted in the New York Times on August 11, regarding the then-pending agreement: “This is consistent with the president’s desire to see a fully integrated society. Until now, we tended to lay dormant. This is historic because we are going to hold people’s feet to the fire.”
Westchester County Legislator Judy Myers chaired the Summit presentation, which included remarks by: Debra Delong, Westchester director of housing; Sue Gerry, senior assistant to the county executive; and Jeremy Ingpen, executive director of the Washingtonville Housing Alliance.
Ms. Myers explained that the agreement provides for a monitor, James E. Johnson, to work with the county and the affected communities to accomplish the mission on a cooperative and efficient basis.
She noted after the meeting, “It is the hope of all involved that this will be an inclusive process, representing the input of all stakeholders and be a win-win for all.”
Ms. Gerry said that details of the implementation plan are expected to be completed by the end of January and there is agreement that “nothing will be built without seeking community reaction.”
She was asked if there are likely to be county mandated zoning changes in the upcoming implementation plan. The answer was the county believes that if there are any required zoning changes, they would come from the local community deciding that new zoning was necessary to meet requirements of the settlement.
Gather Low-Hanging Fruit
Ms. Gerry said the current plans are to “first gather low-hanging fruit” by working with communities and locations where new housing is available and accepted. The housing will be both for ownership and rental. Ownership will be made available to families of four with an annual income of up to $84,200. Rental units will be for families with income up to $63,180. Applicants will have to verify stable income sufficient to afford the dwellings. This program is not for very low-income or homeless clients.
Ms. Gerry noted, “The Fed is not interested in preserving the status quo.” Communities will have to report more diligently and more often on issues of housing integration. “The Fed wants to see what Westchester can do. In many ways this will be a model for the rest of the country,” she said.
Ms. Delong said the county will provide technical and other assistance to developers interested in the new program. It will work with large and small investors and lenders and help put together packages that fit specific situations. It will help existing participating property owners replace roofs, improve heating and fix plumbing. She said she doesn’t expect Westchester to have trouble meeting its goal.
Agreement Considered an Opportunity
Both Ms. Gerry and Ms. Delong pointed out that in some ways the agreement is an opportunity. Ms. Delong said the county has worked for years to develop fair and affordable housing. She subtly suggested the agreement now provides a stick in addition to previously available carrots to move the project forward. Over the last decade, the county has helped to fund 1370 fair and affordable rental units and 334 homeowner units. Under the settlement it will continue this program, with the exception that the $62.5 million stipulated in the agreement will be used in the 31 mentioned communities. But the county will endeavor to find funds to create housing in other communities as well.
New Attitudes Needed
Mr. Ingpen suggested that the agreement could foster a new public attitude towards housing. “If you accept federal government funds, you cannot accept exclusivity, he said. “We have an opportunity to decide what kind of community we want to live in. Do we want a more diverse community economically, socially and ethnically?
Mr. Ingpen recalled that historically Westchester real estate was marketed for its “residential exclusivity,” a proper location for the wealthy and near-wealthy to live near each other and provide good schools for their children. And remnants of that vision still remain. He said the morning commute had “people of one color walking down the hill to the train station, with people of another color walking the opposite way to work in the homes as domestics or nannies.”
[Editor's Noteon correction in quote attribution: it was Ms Myers and not Mr. Ingpen.] Ms. Myers said more than 100 years ago there were affluent residential centers with adjoining helper centers where the workers lived. “In the current situation, the helper residential centers have been gentrified and the helpers now have to live hours away from their work.”
Mr. Ingpen’s comments resonated with both Ms. Meyers and Mamaroneck Town Supervisor Valerie O’Keeffe, speaking from the audience. They noted that in recent winters when a heavy snow was forecast, employees who drive the Town’s snow plows would come down from Dutchess County and elsewhere and sleep in the garage to be available in the morning to plow out the roads for the New York City commuters.
Harold Wolfson is on the board of the Local Summit, an informal community council that seeks to make Mamaroneck/Larchmont a better place to live for everyone. Its regular monthly meetings are held on the second Tuesday of the month at 7:45 a.m. at the Nautilus Diner in Mamaroneck.