The following letter was published in this week’s issue of the Gazette.
To the editor:
It is unfortunate that the Croton Board of Trustees has conducted the rezoning process in secret, but since the politicians have decided to have rental apartments in Harmon and along Riverside Avenue it is a good time to have an honest conversation even if our politicians don’t want our input.
The first question is whether Croton simply wants lots of apartments, or whether we want “affordable” apartments. There is a legitimate concern about the latter category, and it has been an issue in Croton for many decades. It is the reason that the late Roland Bogardus (Mayor from 1983-1989) created the Croton Housing Task Force. As far back as 1992, it was discussed as one of the reasons for revising the accessory apartment law. It was why we have Symphony Knoll and why we have a requirement in the village code at section 230-48.
Contrary to what has been implied by some of our trustees, the fact is that affordable housing is precisely regulated in Croton as to eligibility. Even the square footage and number of occupants of each apartment is regulated by a law passed by the Croton Board of Trustees.
“Affordable” has a specific meaning and is defined in Croton’s village code. It involves the application of a formula which takes into account the median income in the Westchester County Metropolitan Statistical Area; it cannot exceed 60% of that number. For 2019, that means a maximum household income of $57,570 for a couple. If they have a child, it would be a max of $65,000. The max rent would be $1,444 for a couple, or $1,625 for a 3 person household. If they rent a 1-bedroom unit, it must have a minimum floor area of 675 square feet or a 2-bedroom must have 750 square feet.
“Affordable apartments” is hardly a laissez-faire generic term in Croton.
Mr. Olver (The Gazette, week of May 9/15) indicates that the Board of Trustees wants to have enough apartments constructed that the market price becomes affordable. I doubt that there is enough land in Croton to make that happen. Under current village law, developers must set aside only 10 percent of the units for “affordable” housing. So if the goal of the Board of Trustees is even a mere 50 “affordable” units, under current law it would require construction of as many as 500 new apartments.
If Croton wants affordable apartments, it will be necessary to take a more direct route.
Assuming there is agreement on the need to construct “affordable” units in Croton, the second question is: Who are these apartments intended for?
In the abstract, affordable housing can be seen as a social good but in the context of the Croton rezoning we need to be more practical. Are we looking to have housing for low-paid service jobs? Housing for municipal employees? Teachers? Grown children of Croton residents? The elderly? Special groups such as veterans or artists?
Trustee Olver tells us (The Gazette, week of April 4/10) that we are building “affordable private housing for Croton people.” That would be nice if true, but it is not going to happen and might result in Croton getting sued if the Board of Trustees tried to make that happen “for Croton people.”
There are three basic problems with this vision.
The first problem is eligibility. Let’s take Croton teachers as an example. For the 2017-18 school year, Croton schools had 212 active participants in the NYS Teacher’s Retirement System. Of those 212, 154 were above the $65,000 cutoff for a 3-person household and 163 were above the cutoff for a 2 person household. “Affordable housing” eligibility is based on the income of the entire household—not just the person named on the lease. Even if the Croton school employee was the only income for their family, about 70 percent of Croton school district employees would not be eligible for the “affordable” apartments. 40 school district employees were paid less than $10,000 which means that they are not likely to be the primary support of the family and that income would not qualify on its own to rent an apartment.
Given the maximum household income requirements, there are not going to be many Croton teachers who have a low enough household income to qualify for the “affordable” apartment program currently established in the village code. A married couple who make $33,000 each and have a child are excluded from even getting considered for an “affordable” apartment.
The second problem is the racial composition of the proposed preferenced group. I don’t know the racial composition of the Croton school district employees, and the Board of Trustees has not chosen to disclose that information. But it is critical to whether Mr. Olver’s plan is lawful. If the teachers (or any of the “Croton people”) who are going to be preferenced are not racially diverse, then the taxpayers of Croton may be buying a very expensive lawsuit and a lot of bad publicity.
The famous example of this is Darien a few years ago. While Croton does not have the history of explicit discrimination that Darien had, the fact is that Croton is not diverse. Because of that, even a facially non-discriminatory preference can be illegal due to the discriminatory result. It is true that in the boroughs of New York City it is common to have set-asides for persons residing in the specific community district where the affordable units are being marketed. But since most of those districts are diverse already, there is no de facto discrimination as the preference is applied.
Peekskill and Cortlandt have done set-asides for artists and veterans. But both of those are racially-diverse groups, and the groups were spread over a wide geographic area. I also have discomfort with the idea that someone with an MFA in pottery is somehow more deserving of cheap rent than a single mother working at McDonald’s. I understand what Peekskill is trying to accomplish, but it is a bit classist.
That brings us to the third problem: the wide geographic net required to be cast. Croton village code requires that affordable apartments be marketed in accordance with the then-current “Westchester County Fair and Affordable Housing Affirmative Marketing Plan.” As a practical matter, this means that the Croton apartments must be marketed from the beaches of Coney Island to Fairfield County and everywhere in-between. In fact the Peekskill apartments are at this very moment being touted on artist blog sites in Brooklyn.
Croton’s Board of Trustees talks about affordable units for Croton teachers and Croton residents, but they won’t show us the racial composition data which demonstrates that preferences for those groups will survive a challenge under the Fair Housing Act. Nor have they given us any data as to how many Croton teachers have a household income that falls under the maximum income thresholds as set forth in the current Croton village code.
There is nothing wrong with the philosophical position that Croton residents have an obligation to market affordable housing to the 10 million people in the 9 counties which surround Croton, and indeed that is what is required under the language of the Croton village code. But our Board of Trustees should be honest with us, and not push through a rezoning scheme based on the false premise that they are acting to provide affordable apartments for current Croton residents and teachers.
Lastly there is the matter of whether the current physical plant can accommodate an influx of students. Since the Board of Trustees adamantly refuses to tell us how many apartments and how many school-age children they expect to result from rezoning, they have made it deliberately difficult to have an honest discussion.
Trustees don’t want to talk about rezoning’s impact on the Croton school district. If they told us how many students are anticipated, they would have to tell us how the school district will deal with the influx. So they leave it to the rumor mill (and talkative developers) to imply that these apartments will be filled with childless millennials and the elderly despite the strict federal laws prohibiting rental discrimination based on the presence of a child in the household.
At least as far back as the Harmon rezoning, we have been told that the apartments will be skewed to a size distribution which will discourage children. In one recent proposal that did not come to fruition, a developer was telling people that “there are ways” to keep out children. This is untrue, and any such attempt will be illegal. Age-restricted communities are illegal unless you have a development which complies with strict requirements; most importantly you must adhere to a federal law known as “Housing for Older Persons Act” (HOPA). Neither our village officials, politicians, or our $75,000 consultant have discussed HOPA and how that impacts the breezy assurances that these new affordable apartments will have units set aside for Croton seniors.
I am genuinely puzzled as to why our Board of Trustees is so hellbent on packing apartments into Harmon and lining Riverside Avenue. If it is to have “affordable housing” as that is defined in Croton’s village code, I don’t see how this rezoning is going to accomplish that. And while no doubt the Board of Trustees and the $75,000 consultant have reviewed the racial composition data, until they release that information I am skeptical that preference can be given to any sub-group of Croton residents or teachers.
Our Board of Trustees needs to talk to all of us about these questions, not just a few privileged insiders.