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MARINE DRIVE WEATHERS CHANGES

Since new managers took over, the composition of tenants admitted to Marine Drive Apartments has undergone a drastic change.

Blacks and Hispanics now account for two-thirds of those admitted to the Buffalo waterfront complex, which has been predominantly white for generations. The management that many blamed for the imbalance was replaced 15 months ago.

Marine Drive also has opened up to families with children, who accounted for fewer than 10 percent of residents under the former management, but nearly 40 percent of admissions since January 2004.

"See what happens when discrimination ends?" said Scott Gehl, executive director of Housing Opportunities Made Equal, which had successfully sued the the complex under the previous management. "Apparently, new management is practicing equal opportunity."

The Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority, which owns the facility, and Hutchens-Kissling Marine Drive Apartments, the management company hired to operate it, are working through the somewhat bumpy, but generally successful transition.

"The first 15 months have been hard, but we've accomplished a lot of the things we set out to do," said Gillian Brown, the authority's acting executive director. "One major goal was to diversify the development. Obviously, that is ruffling some feathers, but Marine Drive is starting to resemble the city's population."

The authority recently negotiated its way out of a costly severance package the former management bargained for itself and other employees. It also has invested $1.5 million in the complex's seven buildings for work that ranges from the replacing old roofs to updating apartments. A new tenant council has been established.

Marine Drive "is still the same. It's still a beautiful place to live," said Judy Jones, tenant council president.

But challenges have included a fairly high turnover in tenants, apparently resulting from uncertainty over the development's future and an unwillingness of some residents to comply with state requirements, which the former management hadn't enforced, to disclose their incomes.

The resulting vacancies, compounded by the condition of empty apartments, has raised costs and reduced revenues below projections. So in the last 15 months, expenses have outpaced revenues by up to $100,000.

"There's been a lot of work to be done in the apartments. It's been more expensive than we anticipated," Brown said.

The co-op that had operated Marine Drive failed to win a lease extension in large part because of controversies over admission practices.

For decades, whites, many of them senior citizens and some politically connected, had constituted more than 90 percent of tenants. Ninety-seven percent of residents were white in 1987.

That began to change after a 1995 report by the state inspector general found management had violated tenant selection regulations and subsequent legal action by HOME, the region's fair housing agency.

As a result, the racial composition of the complex changed somewhat. At the end of the old management's tenure, it stood at 85 percent white in a city where members of minority groups constitute 46 percent of the population.

Since Hutchens-Kissling took over management, 25 apartments have been rented to whites, 26 to blacks and 23 to Hispanics.

Of those 74 apartments, 28 were rented by families with children.

"We certainly have a diverse group of tenants that we haven't had before," said Jones, the president of the tenant council who has lived at Marine Drive with her son for 11 years.

The new operators marketed the complex throughout the city, including minority neighborhoods, and painstakingly followed state admission requirements in screening and accepting applicants.

"It's an open-door policy -- that's the way we operate," said Thomas Bystryk, operations manager for Hutchens-Kissling.

While members of minority groups account for two-thirds of recent admissions, the complex remained 79 percent white at the end of last month.

Before the management change, plans called for spending $1.3 million on replacing roofs and waterproofing exterior brick walls. That money came from the complex's reserve fund, accumulated through rents.

The authority spent an additional $200,000 to correct problems uncovered after it took the complex back.

To correct building code violations, smoke detectors have been installed and electrical systems upgraded. Leaky boilers have been repaired. Ground floor entrances are being made more secure with a keyless entry system.

"A lot of work has been done inside apartments," Brown said.

The authority has saved at least $1 million of the reserve fund by renegotiating the severance package previous managers had established for union workers employed at the complex at the time of the turnover. The former managers' claim for $376,408 in severance pay remains in litigation.

Jones, the tenant council president, said most of her neighbors are satisfied with the way the new managers are operating the complex. Custodial and security services have continued to be good, she said, and the new tenant council has been established with two representatives from each building.

"Management is quite quick to deal with any issues that are of any substance," Jones said. "This management company is doing the best it can under the circumstances."

Some tenants, however, have complained about current conditions.

"It's rapidly going downhill," said Geraldine Butler, perhaps the most outspoken of the tenants and a strong supporter of the previous management.

Her complaints include a lack of upkeep, plus an increase in crime, people she considers unsavory and poor conduct.

"There are a lot of strange-looking people coming in and out of buildings. I don't know if they live here or not," she said.

Helen Dunovant, a member of the tenant council, said she is "puzzled" by her neighbor's complaints.

"I go through the buildings, and I don't see it," she said.

Since some of the complainers were close to the former managers, others regard the complaints as sour grapes and a reflection of resentment towards the facility's changing demographics.

"There are some people there who don't like change and don't like the fact we've changed the management to be more inclusive," Mayor Anthony M. Masiello said.

He showed The Buffalo News police records indicating an uptick in reported crimes in the past year. But a police analysis attributed most of the increase to vehicle break-ins, part of an overall increase of such crimes in the downtown area. The complex, the analysis also noted, remains free of serious violent crime, with no reported murders, rapes or serious assaults.

"There's been no dramatic increase in crime at Marine Drive," Masiello said.

e-mail: citydesk@buffnews.com

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