A consultant hired by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) held a meeting at the Mount Kisco Public Library Thursday night to gather citizens’ input for analyzing Westchester County’s housing obligations.
The purpose of the meeting was to gather the input to analyze progress and impediments for the county’s obligations under the Fair Housing Act.
Samuel Kilcrease of W. Frank Newton Inc. ran the meeting. The company was hired by HUD to prepare the report, which Kilcrease stressed is a routine document and not related to the affordable housing settlement between Westchester and HUD, where the county will be required to build 750 housing units.
“We’re trying to get as much feedback as possible from everyone who works and lives here,” Kilcrease said, explaining why the Georgia-based firm was hired to prepare the report. “We’re trying to do it from an unbiased standpoint. Learning as we go, asking the elementary questions someone might overlook because they know the answer.”
Kilcrease has been gathering information on a range of topics including land use law, zoning, mortgage data and fair housing complaints that have been filed with the county and the state. He has interviewed non-profit agencies, non-profit housing developers, municipal officials, public housing authorities and Section 8 offices.
Only 13 people showed up to the meeting, primarily non-profit leaders and government officials including Mount Kisco Mayor Michael Cindrich and Village Manager James Palmer. However, Kilcrease said that the highest attendance of prior meetings had been 12.
Kilcrease explained the difference between fair housing and affordable housing. The Fair Housing Act is designed to fight housing discrimination, whereas affordable housing focuses on income.
According to the HUD Web site, “The generally accepted definition of affordability is for a household to pay no more than 30 percent of its annual income on housing. Families who pay more than 30 percent of their income for housing are considered cost burdened and may have difficulty affording necessities such as food, clothing, transportation and medical care.”
In Westchester, Kilcrease explained that the equation is based on low-income families of four, which is defined as 80 percent of the county’s median income of roughly $90,000 per year, which translates to roughly $80,000. “Can a family making $80,000 a year afford to live in these towns,” he explained as the question.
Kilcrease said that Mount Kisco has demonstrated leadership in the area of fair housing. While federal statutes list seven demographic classes for protection against discrimination, Westchester county has a list of 16.
“Nobody thinks about fair housing discrimination until it happens to them,” Kilcrease said. “The county has been very proactive. With the programs you put in place and the commissions you have, I see no community coming close to what you’ve done. I would put you at the top in terms of initiative.”
Although Westchester has been proactive, there are barriers to building affordable housing, especially in northern Westchester. For example, being part of the watershed limits what can be done in terms of building sewer systems, requiring that parcels of land be serviced by septic systems, which may not be able to handle multi-family dwellings. Lack of public transportation is another barrier to low-income families who may not have a car.
Westchester towns are under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Department of Environmental Protection and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, limiting what can be done in terms of sewers, water and rain runoff, which makes planning an overly complex process.
“You have to focus on infrastructure,” said Cindrich. “The entire village of Mount Kisco is within the New York City Watershed. It will never be affordable if towns have to comply with these regulations.”
Mount Kisco is not one of the 31 municipalities targeted to add affordable housing.
The mayor also addressed the Fair Housing issue, criticizing how the federal regulators defines segregation, explaining that the shared school systems are far more integrated than the individual towns.
“When a community has a school district that might be 25 percent minority,” said Cindrich, referring to the Bedford Central School District, which serves multiple towns, “it’s not Bedford or Pound Ridge’s fault that they don’t have sewer and water. They don’t have restrictive zoning to keep people out, they have restrictive zoning for the environment. The only way you can build affordable housing is to build them close together. It’s not the zoning that stops it, it’s the infrastructure.”
Others at the meeting believed that the county has been misleading in its housing requirements, changing the regulations after projects have been started, or excluding projects that may have been in compliance in the past. The county has no zoning authority over individual towns, but the can provide funding for projects based on compliance.
The Fair Housing Report will have an impact on municipalities’ eligibility for two HUD grants, the Community Development Block Grant and Home Partnership Investment Act that allocate funding to the county on an annual basis.