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Affordable Housing Forum Draws Crowd, Debate

Judith A. Myers, Bryan Greene, Mirza Orriols, and James E. Johnson answer questions at the League of Women Voters forum on the housing settlement.
Judith A. Myers, Bryan Greene, Mirza Orriols, and James E. Johnson answer questions at the League of Women Voters forum on the housing settlement. Photo Credit: Suzanne Samin

UPDATE: This story has been changed to correct an error.

WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. -- The White Plains Library's auditorium was packed with hundreds of concerned residents and public officials on Monday night.

The League of Women Voters of Westchester held a community forum there to discuss the housing settlement agreement (HSA) between Westchester County and the department of housing and urban development (HUD).

The HSA requires that by 2016, Westchester County must develop 750 units of fair and affordable housing in 31 municipalities that have been deemed eligible. The county was given $51.6 million in order to do so.

A panel of six officials were brought in to discuss the settlement and answer questions from the league and the crowd.

Some were from Westchester, while others had flown in from Washington to represent the federal government.  They were: James E. Johnson, federal court-appointed housing monitor; Mirza Orriols, acting administrator for Region II N.Y. and N.J. for HUD; Bryan Greene, acting assistant secretary for Fair Housing for HUD; Mary Mahon, senior assistant to the county executive; Norma V. Drummond, deputy commissioner of the county planning department; and Judith A. Myers, member of the county board of legislators.

The forum was moderated by league president Karen Schatzel.

Each panelist was given five minutes at the beginning of the forum to share their unique perspectives on the progress of the settlement, which was formed between HUD and the county in order to correct the county's lack of affordable and fair housing.

The panelists updated the audience on the situation from their own positions within their respective sides.

Mary Mahon, assistant to the county executive, said the county has been making marked progress.

"We are halfway through the seven year settlement, and out of 1,456 units, 707 would qualify for the 750 asked of the county," she said.

Drummond, of the planning department, said that one of the main concerns among the county is if people will come to live in the units being built.

According to Drummond, 2,417 applications have been filed by people for both rental and homeowner developments. Forty-four percent of applicants are African-Americans, who were identified as the least likely applicants in previous studies.

Judith A. Meyers, exiting county legislator for District 7, said she felt the housing settlement provides Westchester with a great opportunity.

"We should not be viewing this as a punishment," she said.

Mirza Orriols, HUD administrator for N.Y. and N.J., said her role is to make sure the county is now spending federal money appropriately.

"HUD did not come out looking for Westchester. A private citizen sued. For years, we took Westchester's word that they were affirmatively furthering fair housing. They submitted several analyses on their progress. Only until a civil rights group sued did we realize these things weren't true," she said.

Now, Westchester faces a $150 million penalty should HUD's regulations be unmet.

Bryan Greene, also of HUD, stressed that the core of the housing settlement is fair housing.

Greene said that congress wants to prevent discrimination from occurring, but also wants to address discrimination patterns that have become a legacy in different areas across the country.

"At the core of the issue is fair housing. 'Affordable housing' doesn't appear in the Fair Housing Act," he said. "Today this is still our focus. If you are provided taxpayer funds, those should not go to communities who create barriers or exclude people."

Greene cited studies done by the Westchester Residential Opportunities organization saying 40- to 45-percent of African-Americans in Westchester have felt some kind of discrimination in housing transactions.

James E. Johnson, federal court-appointed housing monitor, said his role is to report to the public and to the federal court, find the facts, and oversee the county's activities.

"Both parties must get the benefit of the bargain," he said.

After the introductory statements, the floor was opened for a question-and-answer session.

The league asked about the opportunities the settlement would bring to Westchester residents and businesses.

Dr. Miriam Levitt Flisser, a pediatrician and former mayor of Scarsdale now running for county legislator in District 5, spoke to the panel about the effects of lead poisoning on children, and how HUD's alleged withholding of $3 million of lead abatement for the sake of the settlement is putting children in danger.

"We're withholding money to get kids healthy now to give them affordable housing later? Lead poisoning can permanently affect a child's health. No amount of affordable housing will help that child," she said.

Orriols (HUD) said in response, "Westchester County was required to follow all our regulations and therefore must have released their hold on the lead grant, but they didn't."

"It is clear that perhaps some of the blame we place on the federal government should be redirected to the county," Myers said.

Overall, there were more questions to be asked than there was time due to library hours, and though some panelists ceded their closing statement time to allow for more questions, many did not get to speak.

For more information on League of Women Voters, visit their website here.

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