A recent drive around rows of vacant apartments at the Commodore Perry homes revealed boards torn off some of the shuttered windows and doors, and indications that people could be living in some of the shuttered Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority units.
Just hours after The Buffalo News posted a few pictures of the open units online, Mayor Byron W. Brown’s office contacted the BMHA about the situation, then sent city crews to the Perry apartments – located off Perry Street just a few blocks from the BMHA's administrative offices – to help board up any shuttered units that were open, city officials confirmed last week.
There were about 40 open apartments, with a total of about 50 windows and doors that had to be boarded up again, according to city officials.
There were also indications that homeless people had been staying in a few of the open apartments. Neither city nor BMHA workers found anyone in the apartments when they were there, but they did find a Christmas tree in one of the units and furniture and personal items in others, city officials said.
Brown on Friday acknowledged sending city workers to the BMHA complex, but then referred other questions to the Housing Authority. Other City Hall officials, however, indicated that the mayor acted because he was frustrated with the BMHA for not keeping up with the problem.
BMHA officials said they were already out assessing the situation when Brown’s office called the authority after The News photos were posted on Dec. 9 – a day after The News took the photos and showed them to BHMA Executive Director Dawn Sanders-Garrett.
But Brown was concerned that, given the BMHA’s limited staffing, the housing agency would not be able to immediately close up all the open doors and windows without help from the city, officials told The Buffalo News.
Brown was also concerned that homeless people could be living in the units, and instructed his staff to contact the Homeless Alliance of Western New York to be available in case its services were needed.
Police were also called, and went through every unit to make sure no one was in them before they were boarded up, officials said.
With the city’s help, boarding up the apartments – which started about 4 p.m. on Dec. 9 – was completed by noon the following day, city officials said. In some instances, new boards were cut; but in most cases workers reinstalled boards – some of them weathered-looking – found lying on the ground near the open doors and windows.
Sanders-Garrett told The Buffalo News last Thursday that BMHA workers are instructed to check the apartments daily, but there are times it seems the boards are being taken down as quickly as they are being put back up, she said. She also noted that the financially-stressed BMHA has limited staff to maintain its properties.
“We know people are breaking in,” Sanders-Garrett said. “We have procedures in place. Every morning staff goes around to see if there are breaches. They are not just left open and unattended.”
"If there's an issue," she added, "someone would have to let us know."
After learning some apartments were open, Sanders-Garrett said, BMHA staff were asked to check on the situation.
The executive director said she wasn’t aware of how many doors and windows were missing boards when the city crews came out to assist BMHA workers. "I have no confirmation there were 40," she said.
But after city crews came out to help and all the units were secured, BMHA crews should be able to keep up with future breaches, Sanders-Garrett said. She added that a few of the boards put up with the city’s help had already been taken down by Thursday, and had to be put back up.
“We are already putting them back up,” Sanders-Garrett said.
The vacant Perry units, she said, attract people looking for shelter because many of the apartments remain heated even though they are shuttered. That’s because the units are on a utility loop that also provides heat to some nearby Perry apartments that are occupied.
The BMHA since 2011 has been working on plans to dismantle the loop, and replace it with a new system serving only the occupied units. That new system is expected to be in place within a few months, she said.
“We hope that will end the problem,” Sanders-Garrett said, adding: “If people think it’s a warm place, they are going to try to get in.”
The Commodore Perry homes are a collection of 740 high-rise and low-rise apartments, about 330 of which are vacant and shuttered.
The Buffalo News in June reported on the problems at Perry, including reports by tenants in some of the occupied units saying that squatters and vandals would sometimes break into the shuttered units.
“They don’t like to admit it,” one resident said of BMHA officials, “but there are people living in these buildings, going in to get out of the cold.”
The News also posted photographs online in June showing boards torn off vacant first-floor row houses left on the ground outside. The apartments had been vandalized, the kitchens ransacked.
At the time, Sanders-Garrett denied squatters live in the vacant buildings, but said the apartments attract thieves.
“It’s an ongoing battle,” she had said in June. “Over the years, thieves have torn boards off vacant units in search of metals, copper and anything of value.”
When The News returned to Perry on Dec. 8, there appeared to be more boards off the windows and doors than there had been last June.
The deteriorated Perry units became shuttered over a period of the years, in part, BMHA officials have said, because the federally-funded agency doesn't have the funds to repair and properly maintain all the units, some of which were built prior to World War II.
Back in 2002, about 50 of the 330 original apartments were vacant, BMHA records show. By 2007, when Sanders-Garrett became executive director, about 100 units were vacant. By 2011, almost 200 – close to two-thirds of the apartments – were empty.
An audit commissioned by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development charged some of the units were prematurely shuttered by the BMHA in anticipation of redevelopment funds that never materialized. BMHA officials deny that.
The Housing Authority has, however, developed plans to demolish and replace the shuttered units as part of a larger overhaul of the Perry complex. The agency has not so far secured funding for such a project, but continues looking for the needed money.
At a minimum, the BMHA has said, it hopes to obtain funds to demolish the vacant Perry units.
In fact, when first shown The Buffalo News' photos on Dec. 8, Sanders Garrett said the pictures illustrate why the BMHA needs to acquire funding for the demolitions.