I usually agree with what I read in the New York Times, but two recent editorials on the affordable housing settlement left me wondering if the authors know their turf. One was an editorial called “ The Battle for Westchester,” that appeared in the Sunday N.Y. Times on May 13, 2012 and the other was a column by Peter Applebome on April 3, 2012 . Both pieces discussed the August 2008 affordable housing settlement where Westchester County was ordered to spend $51.6 million to build 750 affordable housing units by 2015. The ruling is punishment for misdeeds during the Spano years when his administration received funds from HUD for affordable units that were never built.
Current Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino inherited the consequences of the suit, as well as a mandate from taxpayers to cut county taxes, which are the among the highest in the country. The state exacerbated the county’s money troubles by enacting the 2 percent tax cap that prevents municipalities and counties from raising taxes above 2 percent, while at the same time, billing them for state-mandated programs whose costs grow beyond 2% per year.
Given the economic straits Westchester towns and villages now face and what I know about Scarsdale, where I have lived for 22 years, I thought the Times assertions were off base and ill informed.
Westchester County is ahead of schedule on the construction of affordable units with 206 approved and 196 financed. But that’s not good enough for the NY Times who charges that the units in Chappaqua will be built in a “no-man’s land between railroad tracks, a highway and a bridge,” and in Rye, near “largely minority Portchester.” In Larchmont, they complain that 46 units will be built behind a strip mall, squeezed against railroad tracks and Interstate 95.” What the articles do not mention is that residents of these units will enjoy town and county services and recreational facilities and their children will be “integrated” into fine public schools, all at a very reasonable cost. Since the settlement requires that the units be accessible to public transportation, it is odd that the Times objects to their proximity to the train station.
As a Westchester resident, it’s no wonder to me why the units have been placed in these locations. In Scarsdale we are built out and there is virtually no open space for construction. In order to build a new unit, an existing unit would need to be demolished. Furthermore, when property does become available, it is priced at a premium. First-rate schools and an easy commute to Manhattan make living here highly desirable. It is difficult to imagine how it would be economically feasible to build apartments or homes for $68,000 each when the average home sale price in Scarsdale in 2011 was $1,529,000. Furthermore, the settlement stipulates that for a family of four, the rent plus utilities cannot exceed 60% of the AMI of $63,900 in 2011. This translates to rents just below $1,600 per month.
According to the Times, it’s not good enough that Chappaqua, Rye and Larchmont have found ways to finance, build and incorporate these very affordable units into the community. The Times wants them located among “the Tudors and the glades,” in single-family neighborhoods on prime plots of land.
In November 2011 in an effort to comply with the settlement, Scarsdale adopted the model code recommended by the monitor. The new code requires the inclusion of an affordable unit in developments of 5-9 units and 10-14 units and the inclusion of 2 affordable units in developments of 15-24 units. And even before the code was adopted, the Village Board required the developer of a property at 2-4 Weaver Street in Scarsdale to include an affordable unit. However, one unit will do little toward appeasing HUD.
Even more startling was the NY Times claim of racial discrimination. The editorial states that the case is about “doing something to end deeply embedded segregation patterns and “affirmatively furthering fair housing,” The editorial calls for the county to take “communities to court to stop them from blocking integration through restrictive zoning” and “rental discrimination.”
In my 22 years in Scarsdale I have seen no evidence of racial discrimination. The Scarsdale schools are attended by children of every skin color and nationality. Asians, Indians, African Americans and Hispanics are fully integrated into the community ---in fact, this diversity is a given that is rarely discussed. Foreign cultures and traditions are celebrated in the schools with international fairs and special events. On the tennis courts I find people keeping score in many languages and the Scarsdale Golf Club, once an exclusionary country club welcomes members of every race and background and is a model of diversity.
If this perceived “racial discrimination” is really a stepchild of economic discrimination, then there needs to be a feasible way to pay market rates for affordable housing. The community is already stretched to the limit to finance schools and services and there are no extra funds available to subsidize affordable housing. To me, this suit seems to be more about economics than race. To charge Westchester towns with racism because housing prices are steep, seems off the mark to me.