One Man’s War Against Racial Housing Quotas

Published July 21, 2014

“The federal government’s saying that if you live in a community that is disproportionately white, then, therefore, there is discrimination and segregation. And, as such, the local community and/or the Justice Department needs to come in and do away with a lot of the zoning regulations that they feel restricts high-density housing in any neighborhood.”

That was Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino (R-NY) at a July 13 town hall meeting explaining the significance of a Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) regulation, “Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing.”

The rule was proposed in 2013, but Astorino has been dealing with HUD for much longer than that. Since assuming office in 2010, the Republican has been locked in a one-man war against the federal department. Astorino had inherited a deal struck by his predecessor, Andrew Spano, to settle a federal lawsuit that had deemed Westchester’s zoning to somehow be discriminatory against minorities.

Tied to Federal Funds

Under the deal, the county agreed to build 750 affordable housing units, 630 of which had to be located in communities less than 7 percent Hispanic and 3 percent black as a condition for receiving millions of dollars of federal community development block grants.

But the feds kept upping the ante, making more demands on Astorino — to the extent that he rejected the receipt of $5 million of the grants for 2012, and another $7 million of grants for 2011.

“They have already said that quarter-acre … single-family residential zoning is potentially discriminatory, and what they would do is take away any restrictions that limit height, density, acreage, [and] number of bedrooms — in any community,” Astorino told the July 13 town hall attendees.

He added, “If you live in that quarter-acre or half-acre residential neighborhood, the federal government is saying that a 13-story apartment building could be right in the middle of it, government-subsidized, because there needs to be equal mix, in their view, of ethnicity, of race, of income, etc.”

All that for a few million dollars of federal funding. By virtue of accepting the funds, Astorino — the Republican nominee for governor against Andrew Cuomo this year — would be turning over control of zoning of the six cities, 19 towns and 20 villages of his county to Washington, D.C.

Government Says Zoning = Discrimination

Yet, as Astorino noted in a 2013 oped for the Wall Street Journal, what HUD is doing has nothing to do with housing discrimination: “HUD’s power grab is based on the mistaken belief that zoning and discrimination are the same. They are not. Zoning restricts what can be built, not who lives there.”

Deputy Secretary of HUD, Ron Sims, said in 2009 that Westchester was only the beginning: “We’re clearly messaging other jurisdictions across the country that there has been a significant change in the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and we’re going to ask them to pursue similar goals as well.”

Westchester, he said, would “serve as a model for building strong, inclusive sustainable communities in suburban areas across the entire United States.”

And, with the HUD rule set to go into effect starting in October, it looks like it may actually happen. Meaning the 13-story government-subsidized apartment building may be coming soon to a neighborhood near you.

Bill Would Block Regulation

The U.S. House of Representatives in June passed an amendment to the Transportation and HUD appropriations bill by Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz) in a close 219 to 207 vote to defund implementation of the regulation. In the Senate, Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) has proposed the same amendment, but it still awaits floor action.

Astorino may lose his bid for governor against Andrew Cuomo, but in many ways his crusade against HUD is more important. Through his determination in fighting federal overreach into local communities, he has helped this issue come to the fore.

Used with permission of