Westchester Tests Judge's Patience on Fair Housing


MANHATTAN (CN) - Lawyers for New York's wealthy Westchester County have one week to outline a plan legislating fair housing for minority residents, a federal judge ruled.

"Renewed application for stays could just be a way of never complying with a court order," U.S. District Judge Denise Cote said.

Resolution has been out of reach in the six years since the Anti-Discrimination Center of Metro New York filed a whistle-blower complaint alleging that Westchester County misused federal funds meant to redress fair housing issues.

Finding that Westchester submitted about $52 million in false certifications, Judge Cote said in 2009 the county would owe treble damages under the False Claims Act.

Federal prosecutors then took up the case and negotiated a $30 million settlement, two-thirds of which would be set aside for the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The deal also required Westchester to secure another $30 million for future development, submit to biennial independent monitoring, and plan to build 750 units of affordable housing in areas where black and Latino populations were less represented.

Though then-County Executive Andrew Spano advocated legislation that would comply with the court order, his successor, County Executive Robert Astorino, vetoed the legislation on June 25, 2011.

"The veto was an unambiguous breach of the duty to promote," Cote wrote the following year. "Astorino's veto effectively killed source-of-income legislation in Westchester," she added.

After the 2nd Circuit refused to stay proceedings pending appeal, the parties returned to Cote's court on Friday for a scheduling conference.

For Westchester, attorney Robert Meehan asked for more time to request another stay, saying that circumstances had changed since his last request. Meehan claimed the need for a stay was more pressing now because the federal government was considering sanctions.

Soft-spoken, grey-haired and bespectacled, Judge Cote quietly indicated she would not be swayed.

"Are you intending to comply with the [May 3] order or not?" she asked.

After hearing the county's long and evasive reply, Cote said: "Let's set a schedule."

Westchester must submit a written presentation of its legislative strategy by Aug. 17.

The parties are to meet and confer on Sept. 6.

Westchester can submit future motions for a stay at a later date.

Source: Courthouse News Service