NIAGARA FALLS – With the Niagara Falls Housing Authority’s executive director, Stephanie W. Cowart, under federal investigation, any actions connected to her have been put under a microscope.
None more so than a house at 2168 North Ave., where her sister, Patricia Williams, has been living as a tenant for approximately 25 years. The single-family house is owned and maintained by the housing authority. Williams paid rent for the four bedroom, one bath home, but an authority official said Wednesday he didn’t know how much.
Jason Cafarella, attorney for the authority, confirmed Cowart’s sister has been living there, but said he was unable to comment on whether this issue was part of the federal investigation.
“I can’t discuss the scope at this time,” he added.
The housing authority board opened its own internal investigation two months ago and immediately put Cowart on unpaid leave. The board has yet to disclose why it suspended Cowart or what the FBI is investigating.
Cowart did not respond this week to a request for comment.
Williams would not answer questions Wednesday when contacted by a Buffalo News reporter, promising to call back in 15 minutes. She didn’t.
The 1,176 square foot house occupied by Cowart’s sister, classified as a “scattered site,” is the only housing of its type still maintained by the housing authority, said Cafarella.
The board has had a policy of selling scattered site locations over the past few years and this house on North Avenue was the last the authority owns, he said.
According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, scattered-site, affordable rental housing, which assembles properties in piecemeal fashion in several different neighborhoods, is considered one of the “most difficult methods of neighborhood revitalization.” HUD suggested that this option may be strategically necessary for small multi-family properties in need of preservation. This can also be used with single-family homes as a method to rehabilitate the neighborhood.
The Niagara Falls Housing Authority invested over $31,600 in repairs to the house occupied by Cowart’s sister over the past five years, including expenses of $20,406 in 2013 and $9,121 in 2016, according to numbers released to the Buffalo News by Cafarella. Williams has paid the authority $3,769 out of just over $8,800 she owes for damages to the property in the past five years, Cafarella said. Cafarella said a fire at the house caused $7,600 in damages this past year.
“It’s a housing authority property so like any other property there are costs to update and maintain it. The only difference here is that it is not as cost effective to the authority,” said Cafarella.
After the federal investigation began, the board directed Cafarella to get an appraisal of the house and attempt to sell it to Williams or sell it on the open market. Cafarella presented the fair market appraisal to the board as part of its executive session on Tuesday, but was unwilling to share the details because he said the authority still needs to negotiate a sale.