(White Plains, NY) -- Westchester County Board of Legislators Chairman Ken Jenkins (D-Yonkers), Board’s Committee on Legislation Chairman Legislator John Nonna (D-Mount Pleasant) and housing advocates united today to respond to Westchester County Executive Robert Astorino’s veto of legislation that will make it illegal for Westchester landlords to discriminate against prospective tenants based on income source(s).  "It’s unfortunate that at a time when Westchester families are suffering the burdens of high rent and an economic downturn, that the County Executive has vetoed legislation designed to provide opportunities for fair and affordable housing for families," said Jenkins.  “Source of income will now join race, gender, marital status, sexual preference, ethnicity and age as factors that a property owner cannot consider in deciding whether or not to rent to an individual or a family, assuming the prospective tenant is otherwise eligible and has a documented lawful source of income.  This is a common sense law that will help more Westchester families find housing that they can afford.”  Earlier this month, in a 10-4 bipartisan vote, the Westchester County Board of Legislators approved legislation the ‘source of income anti-discrimination bill’.  The source of income anti-discrimination law, first proposed in 2007, was intensely debated over a three-year period during which the proposal was reviewed by Legislation Committee members, the full Board and the public. Testimony flooded from fair housing advocates and realty industry representatives alike; the law underwent numerous revisions to accommodate vehement reaction to it.

“I find Mr. Astorino’s comments very troubling and ambiguous, given that we have fashioned a law that strikes a fair balance between the needs of tenants who receive government assistance to pay a portion of their rent and the objections and concerns of landlords regarding their right and ability to choose appropriate tenants,” said Nonna.  Legislators further explained how the County Executive’s veto speaks negatively in relation to the county’s efforts to meet the significant mandates of the federal housing settlement, which requires the development of 750 new fair and affordable housing units in 31 communities within the next seven years and to undertake marketing for the units that ensures outreach to racially and ethnically diverse households. “The County Executive stated his intention to fulfill the terms of our legal obligation and the county’s financial exposure should the county be found in violation of the stipulation and forced to litigate to defend what is a $300 million potential liability,” said Jenkins. “The County Executive’s veto could force the Court to determine that the Administration is unwilling and unable to comply and order the monitor to implement the Housing Stipulation without County input.”

The law prohibits the discrimination of denying a lease to a person based on section 8, social security, or any form of federal, state or local housing assistance, assistance grant or loan from a private housing assistance organization.  Also added was a defense for landlords, freeing them from liability if they have exercised reasonable business judgment in not renting to a Section 8 voucher holder, as well as a five-year sunset provision that will allow the law to expire in five years if not re-enacted by the Board.  Jenkins and Nonna both explained that many other jurisdictions have successfully enacted laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of source of income, including New York City, Nassau County, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maryland and Vermont.  “His veto today, further illustrates his Administration’s lack of commitment towards fair and affordable housing options in Westchester County,” said Jenkins.

“The Westchester Not for Profit Housing Coalition is very disappointed that the County Executive has vetoed this legislation,” said Joan Arnold, Chair of the Westchester Not for Profit Housing Coalition.  “We have supported its passage for several years because we believe that it is an important tool in creating additional affordable housing opportunities that further fair housing throughout the County.  Questioning the source of an individual’s income because they may be of lower income is discriminatory.” This law does not prohibit a landlord from refusing to rent an apartment to a recipient of government assistance because of a poor credit history, poor history as a tenant, level of income or any other reasonable business judgment.  The HUD section 8 guidelines allow a landlord to take all these factors and others into account, making Westchester County’s bill the only source of income law in the country with a reasonable business judgment defense. None of the source of income laws in any jurisdiction contain this explicit defense.  In contrast to Mr. Astorino’s assertions, no landlord will be forced to ‘opt into the Section 8 program’. As the courts have made clear, landlords still have considerable discretion under the Section 8 program to choose responsible tenants. A tenant does not have a right to be rented an apartment just because they have a section 8 voucher. “The County Executive’s veto is indicative of his total ignorance of housing issues as it relates to low to moderate income folks, or his political contempt for them and his allegiance to powerful real estate interests,” said Dennis Hanratty, Executive Director of the Mount Vernon United Tenants.

During a presentation, Legislator Nonna highlighted several distortions outlined in Astorino’s veto message sent to the Board.

  • Distortion #1: The legislation attempts to circumvent current federal regulations that specify that the section 8 housing assistance program is a voluntary plan
  • FACT: HUD regulation 24 CFR section  982.55(d) (2003) specifically states:  Nothing in the section 8 voucher regulations “is intended to preempt operation of state and local laws that prohibit discrimination against a section 8 voucher holder because of status as a section 8 voucher holder”
  • Distortion #2: The legislation raises a question of equal protection. It attempts to elevate federally assisted tenants to a ‘protected class, but then exempts large numbers of landlords from having to comply with the law.
  • FACT:  Federal law currently exempts owner-occupied dwellings with up to 4 housing accommodations; our law doubled the exemption to 2 dwellings with up to 4 housing accommodations.
  • Distortion #3: The board has not considered the appropriateness of subjecting landlords to the scrutiny of the human rights commission and the potential of $50,000 fines that the commission could levy against landlords.
  • FACT: The Fair Housing section of the Human Rights law was deemed equivalent to the Federal statute.  As a result, HUD cases are referred to Westchester for review.  The fine was lowered from $100,000 to $50,000 for willful and wanton conduct.  No fine has even been imposed by the Human Rights Commission close to this amount.
  • Distortion #4: Law is “unconstitutional” and raises a question of “equal protection”.
  • FACT: None of these “opinions” has any legal basis.
  • Distortion #5: Astorino emphasized that his veto would in no way deter the county’s efforts to meet the significant mandates of the federal housing settlement.
  • FACT: Contrary to what the County Executive states, the source of income anti-discrimination law advances the county’s compliance with the HUD court settlement that the County Executive obligated himself to promote under the Implementation Plan.  This county executive in a revised March 12 implementation plan under C. Legislative Priorities obligated his office to promote legislation to ban “Source of Income” discrimination in housing.  “C (3) Promotion of legislation to ban “Source of Income” discrimination in housing:  Pursuant to Paragraph 33 (g) of the Stipulation, the County Executive’s Office is required to promote legislation currently before the Legislature to ban “Source of Income” discrimination in housing.”  The County Executive’s stated his intention to fulfill the terms of this legal obligation and the county’s financial exposure should the county be found in violation of the stipulation and forced to litigate to defend what is a $300 million potential liability.

Click here for PDF version of presentation on Astorino veto message.

Click here to for PDF version of letter from Federal Monitor James Johnson.