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Of little use to Buffalo

Mike Clarke, one of region's bright lights on housing issues, reports some disappointing news related to the bill just passed by the Senate and House that provides, among other things, $4 billion to urban areas stressed by housing foreclosures.

Here's a story by and an analysis by Dealbreaker.

Passage of the bill had raised hope in some quarters that Buffalo could be in line for a decent amount of coin to help with its housing vacancy problem. Sen. Chuck Schumer said he expects to use the bill to help push for an additional $10 million for Buffalo to help with vacant housing, according to this report from a WGRZ-TV.

Clarke said he learned that the bill isn't designed to help cities with plain old vacancy problems, however.

Here's what Clarke, executive director of the Buffalo office of the Local Initiatives Support Corp., had to say:

"I just went through an exercise with our Federal policy people on the new legislation that passed the House, Senate and will get the president's signature. I asked about what the formula was for distribution of the money. They told me that HUD must devise a formula to be based off the criteria listed below: 

CRITERIA -- The funding formula required under paragraph (1) shall ensure that any amounts appropriated or otherwise made available under this section are allocated to States and units of general local government with the greatest need, as such need is determined in the discretion of the Secretary based on:
(A) the number and percentage of home foreclosures in each State or unit of general local government;
(B) the number and percentage of homes financed by a subprime mortgage related loan in each State or unit of general local government; and
(C) the number and percentage of homes in default or delinquency in each State or unit of general local government.

"I then asked if I read this correctly and that foreclosures and defaults will be what gives weight to the distributions. If so, it is possible that a city like Buffalo, where foreclosure has been a relatively smaller problem (so far anyway) than the large and increasing numbers of vacant houses, will see less than they would have hoped for.
"The answer was yes, unfortunately. Vacancy didn't make it into the formula."
To repeat: "Vacancy didn't make it into the formula."
Here is LISC's analysis of the bill.

Regionalism is not a four-letter word

The curse of Buffalo - aside from Wide Right, No Goal and the never-ending saga of the Peace Bridge - is the 1,001 cities, towns, villages and school districts that dot the landscape and suck the life out of taxpayers.

OK, 1,001 is an exaggeration. But not much of one.

Take Cheektowaga, home to one mega-mall, five school districts, a town government and, if that's not enough, a village government (Sloan).

We may have built grain elevators a century or so ago, but since then, it's been mostly silos, in the form of one duplicating government entity after another. It's rooted in a political culture that values turf above all else.

That mindset is arguably on display involving a bill passed by the state Legislature that would establish a countywide land bank to manage and rehabilitate vacant properties. Abandoned properties are a huge problem in the city and a growing one in the suburbs.

Expert after expert say that's the way to go, that it's worked in other states. Given that nearly one in every four properties in the city is vacant, they insist that it's an especially smart move here.

Byron Brown, however, is dead set against the land bank bill. Usually, it's suburbanites who oppose regional cooperation with the city. This time, it's the other way around.

Brown wants to start with a city-only land bank. I guess he thinks the suburbs can wait on their vacant housing problem. Phil Fairbanks had a story about it in Sunday's paper.

As Brown sees it, it's a matter of accountability.

"This bill is bad for Buffalo," he wrote in a letter to Gov. Paterson in which he asked him to veto the legislation. "These properties need the direct management and local accountability of the City of Buffalo."

Is it about accountability or control?

"Control is clearly one of the motivations," said Aaron Bartley, of PUSH, or People United For Sustainable Housing.  "No matter what the structure of this land bank is, politicians will seek to control that structure."

Given the city's sorry track record managing and rehabilitating abandoned housing, Brown's argument has a hollow ring.

Jimmy Griffin, Tony Masiello and now Byron Brown have had their chance to deal with the problem. It's only gotten progressively worse. People like Bartley are saying "enough is enough."

The bill is on Paterson's desk to sign or veto.

"This is a governor who's driven by good government and good public policy," said Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, the bill's prime sponsor. "I can't imagine a circumstance where he would veto this legislation."

We'll soon find out. 

Revitalizing City Neighborhoods

Mayor Brown's reconstituted economic development team would be well served by reading An Integrated Approach to Fighting Blight and Poverty in Buffalo’s Low-income Neighborhoods by the Partnership for the Public Good. The seven-age report deals with the cross-section of ill plaguing inner-city neighborhoods.

Its big-picture take:

"Any serious program which seeks to reverse the continuing concentration of blight and poverty in Buffalo’s neighborhoods must include a coherent plan to stop the flood of abandonment, must focus on strategic neighborhoods, and must bring greater resources and legal changes to strengthen code enforcement, housing rehabilitation, foreclosure prevention, anti-flipping, and anti-predatory lending efforts."

The recommendations make reference to a report and recommendations issued in 2006 by the National Vacant Properties Campaign after a study of the region's housing vacancy problem.

A PUSH for housing reform

I've been covering housing issues on and off since I joined The News 22 years ago. Throughout it all, there have been two constants: the ineffectiveness, at best, of City Hall and the non-profit housing agencies it funds.

The investigation by Phil Fairbanks published in The News this week shows not much has changed, at least when it comes to abandoned houses. Nearly one in four properties in the city stands vacant. Only Detroit and New Orleans are worse off, and in the case of way down yonder, it involved one of the worst hurricanes in the history of the nation.

Bartley_2 Mayor Brown is taking a lot of heat for what critics say is a one-dimensional approach involving demolitions. Among the critics: Aaron Bartley, executive director of PUSH, or People United for Sustainable Housing, a non-profit agency operating on the West Side. (In the interest of full disclosure, I'll report my college-age daughter interned at PUSH last summer.)

In an interview this week, Bartley, pictured above, said the problem isn't just "a lack of leadership" in City Hall. "The non-profit community is failing, too," he said.

Boy, is it ever.

I did an investigation in 2004 into the city's squandering of anti-poverty funds and found that most of the 13 non-profit housing agencies were unproductive, some to the point of ineptitude. Among my findings:

"Over a three-year period ending June 30, 2003, state records show the 13 agencies combined got approvals annually for an average of about 210 mortgages and 190 home improvement loans, most of them for repairs of $5,000 or less. That's roughly one mortgage or repair loan every other week for each agency.

"Moreover, a handful of agencies were responsible for most of the activity. Few agencies reported other activity that would have helped their neighborhoods, such as public improvements, business assistance and crime prevention programs."

Things are no better now. Bartley said Rochester and Syracuse rehab 80 to 120 houses a year. Buffalo does fewer than 10. This is partly the consequence of City Hall's failure to reform its Community Development Block Grant program.

Bartley isn't against demolitions. But he said they have to be part of a broader strategy, starting with rehabilitation of salvageable houses. Other pieces of the puzzle include weatherization programs, to reduce energy bills; housing deconstruction, as an alternative to demolitions; and a plan on how to use vacant lots once the house comes down. Bartley see a potential for urban farming.

"We're not arguing against demolitions," Bartley said, "we're arguing they need to be put in the context of the other things you need to do to rebuild a community.

Bartley is part of an organization called the "Partnership For The Public Good," which gave the city this critique of its 2008-09 action plan for housing, neighborhood revitalization, use of block grant funds, etc. It's worth a read.


Broadening City Hall's Demolition Strategy

My colleague Phil Fairbanks has done an excellent series on the problem of vacant housing in Buffalo. This is not a problem of Byron Brown's doing, but the list of those critical of his administration's approach is populated by some of the smartest housing people in the city, including Aaron Bartley of PUSH, Mike Clarke of LISC, and Mike Gainer of Buffalo ReUSE.

Clarke summed up the criticism this way:

"Right now, demolitions are scattershot. There’s no systematic, thought-out approach. There’s no effort at making demolitions part of a larger redevelopment strategy.”

Gainer gave a very articulate critique of the city's focus on demolitions in May at a "Business Gets Green" session sponsored by the Green Gold Development Corp. He's worth listening to.