Gary Morse: PolitiFact RI Wrong on Stenhouse Statement

In a December 14 Providence Journal Politifact RI article (“Politifact R.I. rules Stenhouse claim on HUD, wealthy neighborhoods, False”), PolitiFact reported their findings on a statement made by Mike Stenhouse, CEO of the Rhode Island Center for Freedom and Prosperity.

The statement being fact-checked was made during a November 14 radio talk show interview in which Mr. Stenhouse stated: “According to HUD, it is patently unfair and socially unjust that wealthy people can live in an exclusive neighborhood.” HUD is the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The reported conclusion by PolitiFact was that the statement by Mr. Stenhouse was “False”.

Unfortunately, it seems PolitiFact RI’s reporters, themselves, may need a ride on the Truth-O-Meter as to whether they actually completed a thorough review of the documents they claim to have used in their report. To their credit, they did contact HUD for a statement to which HUD replied: “There are simply no policies, practices, regulations or anything that can validate such hyper hyperbole.”

The history of this controversy originates from a HUD regulation that must be followed when taking any form of HUD grant.  The HUD regulation is known as Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH), found under federal law 42 U.S.C. § 5304(b)(2).  In 2006, Westchester County, NY, was sued in federal court on a claim that Westchester had falsely certified that they were properly following HUD’s AFFH regulations when taking HUD Community Development Block Grants (CDBG).  The statement being fact-checked was based on the outcome of the Westchester lawsuit.

U.S. Federal Judge Denise Cote presided over the Westchester case. PolitiFact cannot separate the court’s interpretation of HUD’s AFFH regulations from HUD’s own interpretation.  Courts do not make law, they interpret the meaning given by the federal agency making the rule, in this case HUD.  In short, did the court itself confirm the accuracy of the Stenhouse statement? Do HUD regulations hold that single-family residential zoning “is patently unfair and socially unjust”?

In 2009, Westchester entered into a settlement agreement on the lawsuit.  The settlement agreement is posted on HUD’s Web site.  Westchester was given the requirement that, to comply with HUD’s AFFH rule, there must be “broad and equitable distribution” of affordable housing in Westchester.  Of 750 required affordable units to be paid for by Westchester taxpayers, 50% must be affordable rental housing.  Further, mandates were laid out as to how Westchester must implement affordable housing in neighborhoods that traditionally were Westchester’s wealthy single-family-zoned neighborhoods.

In a September 8, 2014, report to HUD, the court-appointed Westchester Monitor identified six Westchester communities that still appeared to have single-family zoning practices “restricting the development of housing types most often used by minority residents.”  The next month, HUD withheld $5 million in promised HUD funds.  HUD Regional Administrator, Holly Leicht, issued a statement claiming that “Westchester County has not fulfilled the terms of the fair housing settlement agreement they entered into in 2009.”

Stenhouse’s statement center’s around the operative word “fair,” just as the law in the Westchester case involved HUD’s interpretation of “fair housing.” You can find that phrase 17 times in the Westchester Settlement Agreement, 21 times in the Westchester Monitor’s Report, and 870 times in HUD’s Fair Housing Planning Guide.  A correct interpretation of “fairness” is important to HUD.

The facts bear out that in settling the Westchester case, HUD was happy to later press an advantage by withholding needed funds on a basis that Westchester had not fully deconstructed single-family-zoning in centuries’ old neighborhoods to meet a fairness objective in diverse housing types.

The facts favor Mr. Stenhouse’s statement as being true.  In any case, it’s certain that PolitiFact RI did not prove that Mr. Stenhouse’s statement pegged the Truth-O-Meter on “false.”


Gary Morse, of Barrington, is a retired communications consultant, and active in the debate on RhodeMap RI policies.

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