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Housing authorities cut costs, hear complaints

The grass reached more than a foot high outside Mary Anderson Rodriguez’ Lackawanna Municipal Housing Authority apartment earlier this month when the longtime tenant put in a request to have the lawn mowed.

When no one responded, Anderson Rodriguez hired someone on her own.

“I had a big family cookout, and I had to pay somebody $30 to cut the grass,” she said.

Call it the sequestration effect.

Blaming the federal sequester, Norman L. Polanski Jr., executive director of the Lackawanna Municipal Housing Authority, in June laid off a dozen part-time employees and a dozen full-time employees at the agency that operates three public housing facilities in Lackawanna.

“I didn’t want to lay anybody off,” said Polanski, who said the agency faced a $300,000 deficit in a $4 million annual budget, primarily due to the sequester. “We have financial problems. We have nothing else to save money on.”

Housing authorities across the country are in a similar spot. Most are getting about 82 percent of the funding they had anticipated through the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.

“Funding is not only low, but it’s slow,” said Kathi Whalen, policy analyst for the Public Housing Authorities Directors Association, based in Washington, D.C.

More than three-quarters of 222 agencies that responded to an association survey reported spending less on contracts, supplies and equipment. Of the 132 agencies that responded to a question about personnel, nearly half had reduced staff or hours in response to the cuts.

“The more months go by, the more those numbers are going to escalate in just about every category,” Whalen said. “This is just the start of sequestration. Looking down the road, it’s going to be frightening.”

Last year, the Lockport Housing Authority, which maintains 352 units in six developments, spent about $950,000 in reserve funds on operations. Complaints from tenants about recent cost-cutting measures have started.

The authority canceled summer reading, education and training programs and turned off the outdoor water spigots tenants used to water their flowers and plants, said Kevin Bancroft, executive director.

“We’ve tried to explain to them,” he said. “It doesn’t sound like they’re going to change this sequestration anytime soon. I don’t see next year being better, to tell you the truth.”

In Lackawanna, Polanski said he expects all full-time employees to be back on staff within six months, but the agency could be in the same spot again next year.

“It seems the Lackawanna Municipal Housing Authority can find money for their patronage hires but can’t find money for its tenants’ immediate needs,” said the Rev. Dion Watkins, pastor of Mount Olive Missionary Baptist Church.

Watkins and several tenants called for an independent audit of the agency.

email: jtokasz@buffnews.com

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