The Real Deal New York

Not quite smooth sailing for Rob Astorino

The Westchester County executive sounds off on affordable housing and his feud with Gov. Cuomo
By Jeff Vasishta | August 02, 2017 11:00AM

Rob Astorino

Taken at face value, things look pretty good for Republican Rob Astorino, who will run for his third term as Westchester County executive this November against Democratic state Sen. George Latimer. The county is enjoying massive amounts of commercial development, a booming biotech industry and a low unemployment rate, at 4.1 percent. However, scratch a little deeper and you’ll find constituents worried about displacement because of gentrification, in addition to ongoing bad blood between Astorino and Gov. Andrew Cuomo. That means that Astorino finds himself having to defend his polices while also lauding their successes. The 50-year-old Mount Vernon native spoke with The Real Deal about development in the region and a recent vindication via the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which ruled in July that the county was not guilty of using discriminatory zoning laws. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

Today there are numerous large developments going up in White Plains, Mount Vernon, New Rochelle and Yonkers. What has sparked the current flurry of activity? It was always an attractive market but was second to New York City. People wanted to live in Westchester and work in New York. Now they want to live in Westchester and work in Westchester. With New York City such an overheated market, they’re running out of places to go.

Some residents are opposed to tax breaks for developers, particularly for residential buildings, such as the new tower at the Mount Vernon West train station, which drew some protests. What’s the right solution? Unfortunately, it is extraordinarily difficult to do business in New York State because of the big taxes, the onerous regulations and the anti-business climate in the state. That bumps up also with the stringent environmental laws, so developers cannot do affordable housing without some sort of tax break. What we’ve learned is affordable housing is unaffordable. It’s unaffordable for the people who end up living there who need to be subsidized as well as for the developers who couldn’t build it without tax breaks. The math doesn’t work out.

There are plans to develop the Yonkers waterfront into a new district called SoYo with art galleries, restaurants and shops. Yonkers is divided along racial and economic lines. How can everyone in the Yonkers community benefit from this growth and investment? Unfortunately, that’s always the problem because the taxes are very difficult to deal with and you’ve got land costs, which are extraordinary. It’s about finding a balance to invest, improve, attract and also retain the people who are already living there. If new jobs come in for those who live there and are struggling, that would better their lives and they’d have a much better chance of not only staying gainfully employed but being able to live there. That’s what economic development should do.

New construction in Mount Vernon has been a contentious issue, with the school board going to court to oppose the developments on the grounds that they don’t have the capacity to cope with an increased population. How to you hope to marry revitalization with a school system that is already maxed out? That’s where the planning has to come in, because if you add in 2,000 more people, you’re going to add a lot of kids to a school district, and more services are going to be required from police and fire services … You have to finish the math to know what the real costs are. Then and only then should a community determine whether it’s worth moving forward.

We approved a $1.2 billion dollar bioscience and technology center on county-owned property [in Valhalla] with a 99-year lease. It was approved unanimously by the Board of Legislators, and from the very beginning we insisted that there would be no housing component. That would get in the way of this project, this enormous job creator. It would just be an argument about whether the schools would be suffering [as a result of more school-age children living in the area], and costs would go up. So we put that on the table from the very beginning and took it on the merits of the project itself and the job creation and the compatibility with the surrounding community. 

You’ve been at loggerheads with Cuomo, suing him in May for making a deal with Indian Point power plant operator Entergy to close the facility in April 2021 without first soliciting public input. He is of course someone you have to work with in other areas. This suit must have further complicated your relationship with him, no? It’s really not a relationship, unfortunately. We don’t even get invited to events in Westchester where he is. He did a State of the State address at SUNY Purchase and we weren’t even invited to it. That’s the pettiness of the governor, and he needs to act like the governor at times and he’s not … The state is the problem so often, where all these unfunded mandates come down from and keep adding new costs and we can barely keep up with the current ones. The governor wagging his finger and blaming local officials for the problems of the state is not how you should lead, so there’s a lot of resentment with local officials on how the governor behaves towards them. It plays out in public sometimes. The state has a lot of issues that it’s not dealing with, and it’s coming to a head.

Recently HUD reversed its claims of exclusionary zoning in Westchester; it had alleged that zoning ordinances were utilized to impede affordable housing. What do you feel brought about this change of heart after 10 previous attempts? Do you credit the reversal to the appointment of Lynne Patton as regional administrator of HUD? We don’t think the appointment of Lynne Patton had any bearing on the decision, because professionals from the county and HUD had been working on this for some time. HUD’s position softened after we had an outside consultant do the analysis. The methodology followed by the county and the consultant was approved by HUD.

A politician’s life is can be quite volatile. If one day you found yourself not in politics, what would you be doing? Until I got elected, I worked in broadcasting. I was in radio and TV my whole life. Likely at some point I’ll go back to that.