Home Column Roberts Report: Astorino’s winning frame

Roberts Report: Astorino’s winning frame

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Ever since I heard a lecture from Malcolm Gladwell, author of “The Tipping Point,” I have been fascinated by “framing,” as in how a public issue is framed.

Gladwell asked the audience why Canada has had universal health care since 1984, while we continue to fight about it in the U.S. over 30 years later. He answered the question by explaining that Canada spent a lot of time debating how to frame the issue of health care long before it was presented to their Parliament.

Some framed the argument for universal health care as needing to be accessible to all, others that it be efficient and cost-effective, and still others that it provide maximum choice for patients. After many months of debate, a consensus emerged that accessibility was the most important value and the nation united around the goal of free health care for everyone. While important, the other ideals of cost effectiveness and choice became details to be worked out.

Similarly, faced with a 2009 federal consent decree that required Westchester County’s 31 overwhelmingly white municipalities to address zoning barriers to affordable housing, most of us, advocates and opponents alike, assumed that the federal court order would be fully followed under threat of severe sanctions. But that’s not what happened; in retrospect the issue’s framing more than anything else contributed to a missed opportunity.

County Executive Rob Astorino may have failed in his bid for a third term despite delivering on his promise to hold the line on taxes, but he was stripped of the issue for which he made national history and which motivated Westchester voters in overwhelmingly white areas—the consent decree with HUD.


Westchester was cited for failure to do an Analysis of Impediments to Fair Housing that took into account zoning that made construction of multifamily and affordable housing nearly impossible in the named municipalities. The county’s certifications of compliance, labeled “false or fraudulent” by a federal judge, put the county at risk of paying back up to $150 million in federal grants and fines. And so County Executive Andy Spano agreed to do a proper Analysis of Impediments, promote inclusionary zoning and construct at least 750 units of affordable housing over seven years.

Spano’s opponent in the 2009 election, Astorino, a one-term county legislator given little chance of success, truthfully framed the settlement as an “integration order” because the legal basis for the violation rested on the “disparate impact” on African-Americans and Hispanics caused by the lack of affordable housing. Highly restrictive or “exclusionary” zoning has helped maintain de facto segregation of wealthy communities since racial discrimination was outlawed by the 1968 Fair Housing Act.

Unfortunately for advocates, integration orders have represented a losing message frame for affordable housing since President Nixon’s HUD Secretary George Romney tried to use the Fair Housing Act to penalize communities for failing to address exclusionary zoning. Neither has forced busing proven particularly popular.


While recognizing the unpopularity of integration orders as a message frame, Astorino added another that proved irresistible, portraying the consent decree as an “assault on home rule.” Never mind that the 750 required units represented only 107 per year in a county the size of all five boroughs of New York City combined, or that 50 percent of the housing developed under the consent decree is going to whites. The twin frames of “integration order” and “violation of home rule” developed by his administration proved too strong for the federal monitor or the U.S. Justice Department, which enabled Westchester to evade its 120-day consent decree obligation to produce an analysis of impediments acceptable to HUD for seven years.

A county executive who could have faced fines for contempt of court — as happened to the mayor of Yonkers in a 1980s desegregation case — and used a strategy of “total obstructionism,” according to a federal Court of Appeals ruling, has apparently triumphed with the election of Donald Trump and a new HUD secretary hostile to the concept of disparate impact. In doing so, Astorino appears to have pulled off one of the biggest upsets in state history, eclipsing his success winning as a Republican in a county that is 2-to-1 Democrat. As someone who actively supported the consent decree, I must nevertheless admit to some admiration for the county executive, who never wavered in his message despite the risk of sanctions.

Everyone, including the county executive, acknowledges the need for affordable workforce housing that keeps the economy growing and preserves social mobility. But until we find a winning frame that allows the public to accept it “in their backyard,” affordable housing will continue to be a hard sell in the suburbs. Let’s hope George Latimer is up to the task.


Alexander Roberts is executive director of Community Housing Innovations Inc., in White Plains. He can be reached at aroberts@chigrants.org or 914-683-1010.


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