The Fight Between HUD and Westchester County Continues!


Westchester County and HUD continue their 3 year fight over the terms of a 2009 Fair Housing settlement.  As we wrote last year, the settlement mandates that Westchester County build 750 new units of affordable housing, analyze exclusionary zoning as well as other obstacles to fair housing, and work on how to rid themselves of those obstacles. In addition, the county was required to promote a law that would make it illegal for landlords to discriminate against tenants who use government vouchers (this law exists in NYC).

I wish I could offer some good news, like Westchester has turned around, decided to go above and beyond HUD’s requirements, and that Westchester is now a booming, economically and racially diverse place to live.  But, alas, the fight continues.

HUD had previously promised the county $7.4 million in grants for housing, parks, playgrounds, and other government services. But, as a result of the lawsuit and failure to comply, this money is frozen and may be lost altogether if Westchester continues to sidestep HUD’s criteria. On Monday, the government of Westchester County indicated that they plan to ask the State to administer the money, rather than the county.

Who is behind all this controversy?  His name is Rob Astorino and he is the County Executive (pictured above). Mr. Astorino believes he is in full compliance with the settlement, and is requesting a hearing with HUD before the county officially loses control of the money.

While we understand that politics can certainly play into this lawsuit, we believe that throwing such a fight against Fair Housing as well as racial and economic integration can only be a bad thing.

How Mr. Astorino and Westchester County have not complied with the settlement (according to HUD):

  • The law the government was supposed to promote – landlords can’t discriminate against tenants with subsidies- passed! But then Mr. Astorino vetoed it! How could he simultaneously promote the law while vetoing it? He can’t. The county, according to HUD, still needs to deal with housing discrimination before it can access the money.
  • The county has still not submitted an adequate report that explains obstacles to Fair Housing in the county, particularly a racial analysis.
  • The already developed 300 new units of affordable housing are tucked “into the county’s nooks and crannies” (according to an opinion piece in the NYTimes). This placement of new affordable housing is, of course, problematic, particularly when trying to dispute that the planning is not exclusionary zoning. 

To be fair, one unfortunate circumstance of the monetary freeze is that towns who have no involvement in the court order and (supposedly) have made long-term efforts to promote affordable housing are negatively impacted. These towns, like Mamaroneck, “are faced with losing money for a wrong that for many years we have been proactively seeking to address.”

Stay tuned for more deets on this highly contentious debate!


Friday News Round-Up

We’ve got a lot for you today (a lot happened this week and we can’t pick). Without further ado…

  1. “Outside of the limelight, the Obama administration has been quietly pursuing ambitious changes to better support healthy neighborhoods and regions,” begins this article in Shelterforce Magazine. The article was contributed to the magazine by HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan, so it comes with a certain amount of back-slapping in regards to the Obama administration. But it does give a good sense of what programs are being implemented in low income communities to combat poverty and provide a path for sustainable affordable housing. If you have a different take than Secretary Shaun Donovan on how effective these programs have been, we’d love to hear about it.
  2. The vice-presidential debate was much, much more interesting than the presidential debate. You can read a full transcript here (NY Times) or watch a full video here (YouTube.) According to Think-Progress, Mr. Ryan only lied 24 times in 40 minutes, and in a moment that elicited laughs from the audience, Joe Biden snarked: So Now You’re a Kennedy?! Not a bad day for the Congressman! In other debate-related news, demand for Big Bird Halloween costumes has shot up since Mitt Romney threatened to cut federal funding for PBS.
  3. In another self-congratulatory post from our friends at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, PD&R published this article detailing how the new Elliot-Chelsea Houses transformed a parking lot into a shiny, new, sustainable, mixed-income project in Chelsea. Of the 168 units, only 34 are reserved for people making below AMI. We can’t help but feel a pang of regret that an entire lot owned by NYCHA could not be dedicated to more specifically low income, affordable housing – housing that is desperately needed in Manhattan. Does Chelsea really need any more market rate apartments? The neighborhood will remain vibrant and mixed income no matter what, and rents are shooting up overnight. However, some housing is better than no housing, and we’re glad to see this space as more than a parking lot.
  4. The City is working to create an “Aging Improvement District” in the Northeast Bronx, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and Councilman James Vacca announced on Tuesday. The idea is to concentrate stores, services, and housing specifically for seniors in the neighborhood. The area in the Bronx is the fourth such district in the city; districts in Brooklyn and Manhattan include perks such as seniors-only hours at public pools and more outdoor seating. New York City is typically not an aging-friendly city (just think of all the subway stairs you climb every day). It’s great to see agencies and businesses working together to address the crucial needs of the senior population. The district is being created with the input of community members (seniors!) and we are hopeful that concentrating seniors in specific neighborhoods will not lead to isolation.
  5. It sounds like repairs are finally getting made at the 3 “fire-trap” buildings on 46th Street in Sunset Park. Tenants in these buildings have been fighting for safer and more secure conditions for quite some time, aided by many advocates and organizers. Aside from the pressing repair issues, these three buildings are in foreclosure and the debt is held by a mystery group called Seryl LLC. Tenants are hoping for a preservation deal out of foreclosure that will give them a larger ownership role in the three buildings. We hope that this will come through for them – and we know, that no matter what, these tenants are ready to Fight Fight Fight!
  6. Here is an extra article for you today, simply because it is really cool. After a decade of research, the Mannahatta Project at the Wildlife Conservation Society has uncovered the original ecology of Manhattan. Check out this map and use the slider to move from 1609 to today. Watch the streets begin to fade. The same folks are hoping to expand this project to the outer boroughs, and you can (of course) donate to that effort on their website. Pick your borough to check their progress: Brooklyn, Bronx, and Queens and Staten Island.

See you next week!

Paul Ryan’s Budget and What It Means for Affordable Housing

Paul Ryan holds up his controversial budget proposal

Presidential Candidate Mitt Romney has named Assemblyman Paul Ryan (Wisconsin) to be his running mate. You may remember the Assemblyman Ryan from our first episode of the sadly short lived Surreal Estate News. If you haven’t seen it, check it out here. All jokes aside, Paul Ryan is a fiercely conservative member of Congress and his libertarian views make him a Tea Party favorite. He is a self-avowed Ayn Rand devotee but differs from her when it comes to social policies, where he is decidedly more conservative. He is anti-taxes, anti-spending, anti-entitlement programs, anti-Medicare, anti-gay marriage, anti-choice, anti-birth control, anti-Social Security, the list goes on.

We don’t need to do a profile of Paul Ryan here; his nomination has led to veritable media frenzy and if you are looking for more information on his policies you don’t have to look too far. Rep. Paul Ryan is most well known for his radical budget which would slash trillions of dollars from the federal government in addition to reducing revenue. If you’re wondering how such a budget would affect affordable housing, you’ve come to the right place.

The budget battle was raging in March, 2012 when HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan testified before Congress. In his testimony, Shaun Donovan answered questions about the implication of the Ryan budget cuts on HUD programs. Here is a summary of Donovan’s response:

  • 585,000 units of lost housing from the Housing Choice Voucher Program
  • 425,000 units of lost housing from the Project Based Voucher Program
  • As many as 180,000 units of lost housing from various homeless assistance programs.
  • 17,000 jobs lost from Community Development Block Grants (CDBG)
  • Tens of thousands of affordable housing units slated for construction through the HOME program would not be built.

HUD is a massive federal agency which is vital to providing housing to many low income New Yorkers. Combined, the Housing Choice Voucher Program and the Project Based Voucher Program provide housing to about 360,000 families in New York City, according to a study by CUP. Commonly known as “Section 8”, the waiting list in New York City its 130,000 families long, and has been closed. Further, such a drastic loss in CDBG would likely mean rapid deterioration of housing conditions in rent-regulated affordable housing. This is because HPD Code Enforcement is paid for nearly entirely by CDBG funds.

Paul Ryan’s budget also includes a “complete wind-down” of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the GSEs that supply affordable home loans to millions of low-to-middle income homeowners. While Ryan and his free-market supporters claim that Fannie and Freddie are merely a burden to tax payers, economists argue that Fannie and Freddie are essential housing market stability. A plan to completely privatize Fannie and Freddie would, Secretary of the Treasury Tim Geithner warned in February, increase interest rates across the board and eliminate the ability of the Federal government to provide assistance in times of crisis.

Of course, Fannie Mae has been doing a fairly lousy job helping homeowners, so that’s another issue we’d love to delve into at a later date. The question is whether or not to throw the baby (government-guaranteed home mortgages) out with the bathwater (Ed DeMarco), and the answer is: no.

Mitt Romney has been trying to distance himself from the Ryan budget plan, but he has also hinted that if elected he would eliminate HUD all together. We don’t endorse political candidates at The Surreal Estate, but I can tell you we probably don’t want these two anywhere near the White House.

Via Verde and Green Roofs in the South Bronx!

“Via Verde is  a model for what affordable housing ought to be – a platform for opportunity, a source of stability, a building block with which we forge neighborhoods, put down roots, and build the communities that are the engines of our nation’s economic growth.” – HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan, 6/28/2012

New York City’s housing community is abuzz about the recent grand opening of Via Verde – a large mixed rental/co-op affordable housing building in the South Bronx.  Via Verde is being heralded for its environmentally sustainable structure and green design, as well as a commitment to residents’ and community health.  The building is a collaboration between several groups including HPD, The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, the Enterprise Foundation, and the New York Chapter of the American Institute of Architects.  Montefiore Medical Center is even planning to open a family practice at Via Verde.

All this hype around Via Verde can be seen as an attempt to break away from the South Bronx’s reputation as a destitute place filled with environmental and social problems. The space where Via Verde now stands was previously occupied by 1.5 acres of trash and blight. Once a gas station and a rail yard, the spot was environmentally wrecked. Now, Via Verde is symbolic of the “new and improved” South Bronx. It is a new hope for what the South Bronx can be — low income people living in LEED certified-buildings fully equipped with resources for healthy living.  It’s also reminiscent of what New York City could be like if the city and development groups upheld their promises to build new affordable housing. (Check out our recent blog post about Atlantic Yards and the other broken promises of affordable housing.)

Via Verde is not the only project the City is working on to fight environmental degradation in the South Bronx.   New York City Economic Development Corporation (with the support of Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. and Council Speaker Christine Quinn)  has proposed building one of the largest rooftops farms (200,000 square feet!) to in Hunts Point.  Hunts Point is a notorious  “food desert” and the proposed rooftop garden would provide the neighborhood with both fresh food and jobs.

New affordable housing is desperately needed in New York, and green developments like Via Verde are innovative and exciting.  However, it is important to recognize the pervasive struggles tenants face in already existing affordable housing.  This rent regulated housing is valuable infrastructure that is home to hundreds of thousands of New York City low income people.

On Monday, we spent the day surveying several small buildings in foreclosure with Flushing Savings Bank in Brooklyn.  The buildings were in terrible condition: rodents, mold, holes in ceilings, no security. One building had been living without gas for over two weeks.

Tenants desperately need New York City and innovative housing advocacy groups to invest in occupied buildings, not just in exciting new developments.  Rent stabilized units are crumbling away while tenants are living in them – tenants should not have to wait until these units loose their affordability for repairs and renovations.We believe that the cost to stabilize these buildings now is far lower than the cost of losing this invaluable housing stock. We need to keep our rent protection laws strong, and increase opportunities for responsible preservation developers to purchase affordable housing before what exists becomes utterly unlivable.

Beat Recidivism, Provide Stable Housing!

Have you heard the news? Los Angeles is taking a controversial step to remove barriers preventing formerly incarcerated people from receiving rental subsidies, according to the LA Times. While not a permanent solution to the housing crisis, LA’s new policy is certainly a step towards a more humane subsidized housing system. We think that this is a great idea, and wish that New York City could do the same. Housing is a human right, whether one has a criminal record or not.  Furthermore, it only makes sense that people with criminal records should have access to stable housing: so often poverty and instability (which go hand in hand with inadequate housing) lead to crime.

Last year, HUD Secretary (and former NYC HPD commissioner) Shaun Donovan wrote a letter to all executive directors of Public Housing Authorities (PHAs), in which he encouraged them to extend housing options to ex-offenders.

Research shows that ex-offenders who do not find stable housing in the community are more likely to recidivate than those who do, yet people returning from their communities from prison often face significant barriers to obtaining housing. […] People who have paid their debt to society deserve the opportunity to become productive citizens and caring parents, to set aside the past and embrace the future. Part of that support means helping ex-offenders gain access to one of the most fundamental building blocks of stable life – a place to live.

In LA, there is a special program designating 510 homeless people for housing vouchers for rental subsidies.  To qualify for that program in the past, applicants needed to have a “clean record” and not be on probation or parole.  This new policy will eliminate those requirements, allowing homeless people to qualify for housing no matter their criminal background.  The LA Times hits the hammer on the nail:

In a county that has roughly 51,000 chronically homeless people — more than any other in the nation — it is only right that some Section 8 vouchers should go to those in acute need. Ex-cons who qualify for the homeless set-aside vouchers are among the most desperate. But they are also supervised and working on changing lives addled by drugs, crime, homelessness, mental illness or some combination of all that. If they have served their sentences and put two years between themselves and a jail cell, does it make sense to deny them assistance? The set-aside program is about identifying those most in need of housing and giving them priority.

We were curious to see how our own city government deals with housing access among ex-convicts, and were not pleased with the findings. As far as we can parse out, there are two unchanging rules that can ban you from receiving Section 8 or a NYCHA apartment: if you are registered on the lifetime sex-offender list or have been arrested for producing meth on public housing grounds.

Beyond that, there are several much looser yet far-reaching rules that impact low-income New Yorkers’ ability to receive housing.

  • When applying for public housing or Section 8, the government runs a background check on each member of your household, as well as every child’s biological parent- even if they don’t live with the child.  These background checks can be used against families who are applying for housing.
  • If you are arrested, you and those you live with are at risk of being evicted or cut from Section 8.
  • If you are convicted of a violation, you cannot live in public housing or receive Section 8 until 2 years after your sentence is completed.  Your family may also be at risk of eviction.

The scariest piece of all this is that one family member getting arrested –not even convicted–endangers an entire family’s eligibility to live in NYCHA or receive Section 8.  To us at UHAB, we find these rules as counter-intuitive and unjust.  Housing provides stability, safety, and the means of building a “productive” life.  Without it, how can a person recently home from prison get back on their feet?  How can that person’s family live safely while the threat of eviction looms?  These laws perpetuate instability and further the cycle of poverty and inequality in New York City.

While these NYC programs are different than the specific one in LA which is changing to include ex-convicts and parolees, we believe that expanding who can live in NYCHA and receive Section 8 is also crucial.  There is a serious lack of affordable housing in NYC, and the more vulnerable populations who can access it, the better.

Below is a chart, courtesy of, which outlines more specifically the guidelines for who can be denied public housing and Section 8 based on criminal record.

Type of Conviction

Number of years after serving your sentence(including completion of probation/parole and payment of fine)  that you and your household are not allowed to live in NYCHA Section 8

Conviction that makes you subject to a lifetime registration requirement under a sex offender registration program

Permanent bar, or until you are no longer subject to lifetime sex offense registration

Class A, B, or C Felonies for Violent Behavior, Controlled Substances or Alcohol Related Offenses

6 years, but if you are in prison and cannot be released less than 10 years from the date of eligibility interview, your family is not ineligible on this ground

Class D or E Felonies for Violent Behavior, Controlled Substances or Alcohol Related Offenses

5 years, but if you are in prison and cannot be released less than 10 years from the date of eligibility interview, your family is not ineligible on this ground

Class A Misdemeanors Based on Controlled Substances or Alcohol Related Offenses

4 years, or 5 years if the person has been convicted of 3 or more misdemeanors involving drugs, alcohol, or violent felonies within the past 10 years

Class B or unclassified Misdemeanors Based on Controlled Substances or Alcohol Related Offenses

3 years, or 4 years if the person has been convicted of 3 or more misdemeanors involving drugs, alcohol, or violent felonies within the past 10 years

Violations or DWI Infractions Based on Controlled Substances or Alcohol Related Offenses

2 years, or 3 years if the person has been convicted of 3 or more misdemeanors involving drugs, alcohol, or violent felonies within the past 10 years