Published March 30, 2016
President Obama’s new Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH) regulation is arguably the most radical, transformative, and potentially controversial initiative that his administration has undertaken to date. Maybe that’s why the mainstream press barely covers it.
Now, the Obama administration’s AFFH policy has morphed from “mere” massive regulatory overreach into a bald attempt to quash the freedom of speech of its political opponents. The new federal effort to muzzle Westchester County Executive Robert Astorino’s attacks on the Obama administration’s housing policy is very arguably designed to silence public opposition to AFFH, and to remove a potential political time-bomb from Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.
Hillary Clinton’s hometown of Chappaqua, in Westchester County, New York is ground zero in the national controversy over AFFH. Westchester’s County Executive, Robert Astorino, a Republican, has been publicly asking Hillary Clinton whether she thinks her hometown is discriminatory, and whether she agrees with the Obama administration’s efforts to force Chappaqua to build a low-income housing development that it doesn’t want. Last July, Astorino even held a press conference outside of Hillary’s home to press her to speak to the issue.
And now it just so happens that the “Federal Monitor” appointed to oversee the settlement of a court case compelling Westchester to “affirmatively further fair housing” has asked a court to muzzle Astorino. The Federal Monitor wants to force Astorino, the man who has led public resistance to Obama’s de facto takeover of local governments, to repudiate his own claims and parrot the administration’s line instead. In effect, they want a court to order Astorino to stop criticizing Obama’s HUD and start advertising HUD’s own views. This is truly Orwellian stuff, a frightening demonstration of how the expansionist regulatory state ultimately chokes off political speech itself.
Astorino has been a thorn in the Obama administration’s side for some time. In 2013, after viewing a 12 minute video of Astorino describing Westchester’s battles with HUD, Goffstown New Hampshire decided to stop applying for HUD money. Recently I pointed to this example and called on other localities to stop applying for HUD money. As I explained in that piece, “Don’t Take HUD Money: Feds Will Swallow You Whole,” the Obama administration has intentionally back-loaded the harshest demands of its new AFFH rule until just after the presidential election, so as to avoid political controversy. I called for a national movement against HUD grants to begin now, before a Hillary Clinton presidency could lock in Obama’s AFFH rule. Astorino’s warnings would be a very important part of such a national rebellion. So is it surprising that the Federal Monitor now wants to shut Astorino up?
The Federal Monitor’s attempt to silence Astorino comes in the form of a report filed on March 17. The report claims that Astorino has spread false information about Westchester County’s housing settlement, and about the efforts and intentions of HUD and the Federal Monitor himself. But the Federal Monitor’s charges are bogus. They rely on the same techniques of obfuscation that the Obama administration regularly deploys in matters pertaining to AFFH.
In “Attention America’s Suburbs, You Have Just Been Annexed,” I explained how the Obama administration’s rhetorical tricks work. The administration’s goal is to force suburbs and small towns to build very large numbers of high-density, low-income housing units, and to gut local zoning regulations that block high-density development. The way the administration intends to do this is to force municipalities to analyze their low-income housing needs, not based on their own population, but on the population of the larger regions of which they are a part. In effect, this kind of regional analysis renders local municipal boundaries meaningless and completely undermines local control.
Fully aware of the politically explosive nature of this strategy, the Obama administration’s AFFH rule repeatedly declines to openly force localities to join regional consortia. Instead, the rule tries to more quietly accomplish the same end by supplying regional demographic data to any locality applying for a HUD grant. Then the rule directs localities to analyze its low-income housing needs based on regional data. The effect is to nullify local control and force suburbs and small towns to build low-income housing for nonresidents, who must then be imported from elsewhere in the region. (For a preview, see the case of Dubuque—and the aftermath.)
This same strategy is being deployed against Westchester County by HUD. The federal government denies that it is forcing Westchester to build many thousands of units of low income housing, or forcing it to effectively nullify much of its zoning. The feds never say straight out that this is their goal. All they say is that they are asking Westchester to “analyze” its housing needs using regional data. But it all really amounts to the same thing. Just by forcing Westchester to do a regional analysis of its housing needs, HUD can force Westchester to build thousands of low-income housing units and nullify its own zoning laws, without the feds ever admitting that this is their game.
Astorino is simply telling the truth about the real effects and intentions of HUD and the Federal Monitor. He is exposing the real effects of HUD’s policy, even though HUD itself, for political reasons, doesn’t want to own up to all that. And yet because Astorino can’t point to a specific statement from HUD or the Federal Monitor where these intentions are confessed, he is being called a liar.
This is equivalent to President Obama suing to silence Republicans who claimed that Obamacare would make many people lose their doctors. Obama never said that many Americans who liked their doctor would lose their doctor. In fact, he promised the opposite. And if Republican lawmakers had been asked by a court for a clear statement from President Obama to the effect that Obamacare would make many Americans lose their doctors, they wouldn’t have been able to produce one. Even so, Republicans were right and it was actually Obama who was lying.
Astorino is puncturing the Obama administration’s false pretentions in exactly the same way here. But this time the Obama administration is trying to get a court to silence him because he can’t produce a smoking gun confession of HUD’s true policy intentions. That amounts to an outrageous infringement on political speech. If generalized, the principle at work here would render almost all ordinary American political debate impossible.
The Federal Monitor’s report reaches truly bizarre heights in this regard. It attacks Astorino’s “tone,” as if you can silence someone’s speech because you don’t like their attitude. It’s true that Westchester County is under a consent decree, but in this case the terms of the consent decree are being abused to undermine the most basic rights of free speech. The Federal Monitor’s report sets a terrible precedent, and I believe that in the near future you will see it criticized systematically as a serious violation of freedom of speech.
These abuses pose more than a merely theoretical danger to our political discourse. There is every likelihood that the Federal Monitor’s report is an effort to silence Robert Astorino, both for his attacks on Obama’s AFFH rule, and for the very serious problem his public pronouncements represent for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.
The effort to silence Robert Astorino must stop.
Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He can be reached at email@example.com