On Feb. 28, members of the Westchester Municipal Officials Association (WMOA) co-signed a letter to Gov. Kathy Hochul voicing their concerns with, and disapproval of, some aspects of the New York State Housing Compact, a piece of legislation introduced by Hochul as part of her proposed 2023-24 state budget.
Chief among the concerns was Transit-Oriented Development (TOD), a provision in the proposed budget that would require Westchester municipalities within 15 miles of New York City to adjust their zoning to support 3 percent increases in housing capacity within three years of the budget’s effective date.
According to the letter, which came from WMOA’s subcommittee on housing, “The TOD zoning mandate included in the Housing Compact must be removed. Using conservative estimates, the mandated level of density would require us to permit development that would, in many cases, double, triple and even quadruple the total number of housing units in some of our municipalities.”
That increase in population, the municipal officials state, would force a fundamental overhaul of services provided by local governments such as schools, traffic, and sewers.
In their letter, the municipal officials suggested that TOD be shifted from a mandate to a “preferred action,” which would allow the municipalities to select placement of TOD-compliant housing within their borders. The initial TOD proposal would establish a half-mile radius around Metro-North Railroad stations which would be designated TOD zones.
Also in the letter is a request that the 3 percent housing increase goal be amended to account for factors like current housing density, current affordable housing yield, amount of available land for new construction, and lack of available infrastructure. This modification would allow for growth goals to be set on what WMOA called a “project-by-projcet” basis.
The municipal officials also called for the preservation and streamlining of the State Environmental Quality Review (SEQRA) process, which would not apply to TOD-compliant developments under Hochul’s proposal.
WMOA also said that expanded State support would be necessary to create the infrastructure to support the increase in density that the Housing Compact would mandate. The current estimates for how much the increased infrastructure would cost municipalities, WMOA said, is “a fraction of the amount required.”
Hastings Mayor Niki Armacost is member of WMOA’s Housing Subcommittee. Listed among the supporters of the letter are Greenburgh Town Supervisor Paul Feiner, Ardsley Mayor Nancy Kaboolian, Dobbs Ferry Mayor Vincent Rossillo, Irvington Mayor Brian Smith, and Tarrytown Mayor Karen Brown. Armacost is WMOA’s treasurer, and Kaboolian is on the executive committee. CC’d on the letter were 14 New York State representatives in both the State Senate and the State Assembly, including Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and State Assembly member MaryJane Shimsky of Dobbs Ferry.
In a conversation with the Enterprise, Shimsky didn’t mince words when asked what this letter means to officials at the state level.
“I think it says that there are serious concerns about the way the State is approaching this particular problem,” the former Westchester County legislator said. “And it’s something that we, in the Westchester delegation as their elected representatives, have to take seriously.”
When asked what proponents of the Housing Compact tell her about the proposal, Shimsky responded, “They are saying that we need more housing — and we do need more housing — and some people do have this impression that we are all racist, that we are all just desiring to keep our trees and our grass and we don’t care about anything else. But the fact of the matter is, number one, there are a number of communities that have tried to put in affordable housing and have put in affordable housing, but the degree to which some of these proposals want housing in our communities is really problematic. Also, affordability is a huge issue. Real estate is very expensive in Westchester County. So these developers are not going to be building housing that’s affordable for the vast amount of people in colored communities.”
When asked where that perception of racism might come from, Shimsky attributed it to “the fact that our communities do not have the same percentage of people of color that, say, New York City does.” Census Bureau estimates for 2021 indicate that Westchester County is 72.9 percent white.
“Basically, a lot of it has to do with how expensive housing is,” Shimsky added. “We have been working on that, we are willing to work to get more affordable housing. But the way to do it is not to essentially tell our communities that they have to let any and all developers in.”
Questions of race in housing are not new to Westchester County, which was sued by the Anti-Discrimination Center on behalf of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in 2006. That lawsuit alleged that the County had accepted $52 million in HUD funds while falsely certifying claims that the County was complying with the federal Fair Housing Act of 1968. Specifically, the suit alleged that Westchester County had failed to identify impediments to fair housing based on race or ethnicity or resulting from racial or ethnic segregation when analyzing fair housing impediments in the county, a necessary step to remain in compliance with the 1968 act.
In 2009 that suit was settled, with the County agreeing to repay $21.6 million to its account with HUD and setting aside an additional $30 million in County funds for the construction of 750 affordable housing units in Westchester. The settlement agreement was terminated in August 2021 after County Executive George Latimer received notice that the County was in “substantial compliance” with a consent decree signed during the settlement.
Shimsky, like her colleagues at the village and town level, believes that the way to increase housing density in Westchester isn’t “by fiat,” but by incentivizing further housing development. When asked how the State might do that, Shimsky told the Enterprise that “We’re going to have to really step it up to make sure that the money is available to subsidize land and substitute infrastructure so that any housing that is built is affordable.”
The New York State Constitution mandates the approval of a state budget by April 1. TOD was proposed as part of the 2022-23 State budget, but was removed before that spending plan was finalized.
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