Trouble in Paradise?

May 13, 2012

At an aggregate level, the population of Westchester County, New York is reasonably diverse: racially, religiously and economically. Get down to the details, and you will find classically segregated neighborhoods, towns and schools. There have been several attempts to break this socio-economic logjam, most recently a landmark consent decree between the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and Westchester County signed in 2009.

It is now May 2012, and Westchester County is in trouble. The County is in trouble with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development because of some alleged oversights in how the County managed federal CDBG funds. U.S. District Court Judge Denise Cote has ruled that Westchester County Executive Robert Astorino is required to promote ‘source of income legislation’, which would prohibit discrimination against tenants using Section 8, disability income or other government income to pay rent.

Mr. Astorino vetoed the legislation in 2010 and that veto was one of several matters the monitor assigned to the case was asked to rule by U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The monitor sided with HUD but the county appealed that decision.

U.S. District Court Justice Cote said in her most recent ruling, “Under no reasonable understanding of the term can the County Executive be said to have discharged the obligation to promote source-of income legislation when he vetoed the legislation. The veto was an unambiguous breach of the duty to promote…The County Executive’s action constituted the very opposite of what was required under the Settlement, and placed the County in breach.”

County Executive Astorino has vowed to fight the federal government because – despite the written agreement and the court affirmation of his duties under the settlement – he says that he believes he is right.

HUD is withholding federal funding from the County until the County is in compliance with the settlement, an amount that has now reached $12 Million combined for 2011 and 2012, all because of this seemingly foolish ongoing legal stalemate.

Most unfortunate: The withheld money is for affordable housing; new sidewalks; and nonprofits including A-Home ($30,000); Westchester Residential Opportunities ($145,000); and the Housing Action Council ($120,000); each of which is working closely with Westchester County to meet its obligations under the settlement.

It is also money for homelessness prevention; scholarships for disadvantaged youth; summer evening programs for teens; and a medical van for seniors. It adversely affects communities that aren’t even part of the settlement.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development invests a great deal of time and resources each year to ensure that eligibility for various housing-related subsidies is carefully indexed to local markets.

In Westchester County, HUD defines a 2 person household as “low-income” if their gross annual household income is $58,250 or less. That is almost 400% of the Federal Poverty level.

One of the HUD programs available to low-income residents in Westchester County is the “Housing Choice Voucher Program” (a.k.a ‘Section 8’) which assists low-income households by limiting their contribution to their monthly housing expense to 30% of their gross monthly income. There are 17 Section 8 program offices in Westchester County. Each office is an independent program with its own waiting list for assistance, program guidelines and areas of assistance. The availability of apartments which accept Section 8 assistance for renters is limited due to the lack of non-discriminatory ‘source of income’ requirements for landlords.

Westchester County is also in trouble because it is planning to increase the amount that lower income working parents are required to pay for subsidized child care. Westchester County’s plan to increase this share from 20% to 35% of “above-poverty income” will severely and negatively affect many households which are already struggling with the high costs of housing and transportation. Safe, affordable and quality early learning is a societal mandate if we are to have a productive workforce today, and for the future.

We know from 2010 Census data that 30% of Black (or African American) households were headed by a female householder, no spouse present, three times as high as White alone households (9.9 percent), and the “majority of female family households with no spouse present contained own children of the householder…”

2010 Census data for Westchester County tells us that 36.9% of households headed by a single female with children under 5 years are living at or below the federal poverty level.

For a 2-person household, the 2012 definition of living at 100% of the Federal Poverty level anywhere in the continental U.S. is an annual income of $15,130. (Note the disparity between this definition of poverty, and HUD’s definition of “low-income” at $58,250 or less.)

Some will say that there is no connection or correlation between the housing case and the child care subsidy case.

What I see here are two seemingly unrelated actions which will have disparate negative impact on people of color, particularly single female heads of household.

This sort of behavior by an elected official is not only wrong, it seems to be a clear violation of the purpose and intent of federal and state anti-discrimination laws.

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I am writing from Toney Westchester County, NY.

Our current County Executive, Rob Astorino, recently decided to charge mostly poor families in our County an extra $120 a month for subsidized child care, while most families still grapple with the worst effects of the recession.

Much like presidential candidate Mitt Romney, County Executive Astorino is sending the message that he is out of tune with the proletariat, and that he has distain for the lower and middle-income people who are the majority of the workforce in New York’s lower Hudson Valley.

Our County Executive recently announced that he would ask for permission from New York State to increase from 20 percent to 35 percent the amount of money charged families who use subsidized child care. Now, two years into his four year term, Astorino has been consistent in his apparent campaign targeted at cutting child care and a number of other services that help to keep the working poor working.

In the end, Astorino knows that this gets relegated to be a ‘women’s issue’ and he knows that women have little, if any, influence on election outcomes.

In fact, equal access to quality child care is way more than a ‘women’s issue’, it is a long-term societal issue.

The positive impacts of quality early care and learning on early cognitive development have been well documented.

Children from households with 2 parents who are both college graduates probably benefit the least from high-quality child care, because they start out with a ‘competitive advantage’ from their home environment.

The children who need the most help — those from single parent households where the mother’s highest level of educational achievement is GED or less — are the most in need of rigorous, reliable and high-quality ECE programs.

The positive impact of universal and equal access to quality ECE is clear: on individuals, on families and on society overall, although the positive program outcomes are more often gleaned from European data because of the political ‘yo-yo-ing’ that exists in the U.S.

Westchester County is one of the highest cost areas in America.

Why wouldn’t the residents and businesses in Westchester NOT want to set an example for other U.S. areas in terms of equal access to high-quality early care, if for no other reason than to create a salubrious environment for employers that need a productive workforce?

In the final analysis, discrimination against children due to economic circumstances has disparate impact on children of color.

Isn’t this just another proof that the housing lawsuit really may have merit?