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Concerns mount over BMHA chief's heavy travel schedule

Dawn Sanders-Garrett, who heads Buffalo’s public housing agency, in mid-October 2015 hopped a plane to California for a housing conference that kept her on the West Coast for much of the week.

The next month, she boarded another plane, this one to Charleston, S.C., for a retreat that a public housing organization held for its board members.

Less than three weeks after returning from South Carolina, she headed to Miami for meetings sponsored by a public housing insurance organization.

About a month later, in January 2016, Sanders-Garrett again headed to Florida, this time for a conference sponsored by the same organization that hosted the November retreat.

It was a busy travel time for Sanders-Garrett, but not that unusual for her.

During 48 months from Jan. 1, 2013, through Dec. 31, 2016, the executive director took 34 trips for the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority – almost all to conferences or meetings sponsored by five different industry groups, according to a Buffalo News review of BMHA travel vouchers.

The cost of Sanders-Garrett’s travel amounted to about $27,000 over the four years, the review found.

But that is not what is raising questions. It is her time away from the Buffalo authority as the financially stressed BMHA struggles to maintain the 29 apartment complexes where some 10,000 of the city’s neediest residents live.

Sanders-Garrett was out of town for all or part of 158 days, while traveling for conferences and related meetings from January 2013 through the end of 2016, according to the travel vouchers. That includes weekends, travel days and a handful of times when – at her own expense and on her own time, using vacation or personal days – she stayed in or near a conference city a few extra days, The Buffalo News analysis found.

Her busiest year was 2015, when she took 10 trips that took her out of town for all or part of 49 days.

“If the executive director is gone all the time, there is no direction, and that’s what we see,” said tenant leader Sam Smith, who lives in the Stuyvesant Apartments senior complex. ”And who pays the price? The residents.”

Sanders-Garrett defends her travel, saying she works on behalf of the BMHA at these conferences, looking for ways to get more money and develop and advocate for state and national policies that assist the Buffalo housing agency.

She is always reachable by phone and computer while at the sessions, and others on her management team remain in Buffalo when she is not there, Sanders-Garrett said.

“Even though I may not be in the office for these meetings, I am always in touch with the office,” she said. “There is never a time I don’t know what is going on at the office. This is a 24-7 job.”

But there are growing concerns with Sanders-Garrett's heavy travel schedule.

Michael Seaman, who approves Sanders-Garrett’s travels as chairman of the BMHA board, agrees Sanders-Garrett is accessible while traveling. He also believes her work at the conferences and meetings is important.

But given the day-to-day challenges the BMHA faces, Seaman said, it might be time for Sanders-Garrett to pull back on her travel schedule, perhaps using teleconferencing as an alternative.

“I think today, with all that is going on, we need to pay more attention on the day-to-day services we need to provide for our residents,” Seaman said, adding: ”A conversation has to be had. There has to be balance. Our main focus is to serve the residents the best we can. We spent a lot of money to have a conference room equipped with technology. Perhaps we can look at using that to get some of this done.”

Others, like Smith, are more critical.

“When the cat’s away the mice will play,” Smith said.

Having an executive director gone 158 days in four years only works if an organization has a strong second-tier management, he said.

“And they don’t.”

Started at HUD

Sanders-Garrett, 48, was named executive director in 2007 and earns $120,000 annually running the largest public housing agency in New York State outside of New York City.

At the time she was hired, the University at Buffalo graduate – she has a bachelor's degree in public policy as well as an MBA – had spent seven years working with HUD’s Western New York field office, assisting municipalities and organizations with federal programs. She also was a member of Grassroots, the same political organization that is associated with Mayor Byron W. Brown.

When appointed, Sanders-Garrett said, she was told that representing the BMHA at conferences was part of her job.

So she has taken on dual roles – as executive director of the Buffalo agency and as public housing advocate.

As head of the housing authority, Sanders-Garrett takes the brunt of the criticism when the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, for the third-straight year, labeled the Buffalo agency  “substandard.” HUD cited the housing authority finances and management, particularly its inability to get apartments rented quickly enough after residents move out as well as the hundreds of vacant, dilapidated BMHA apartments deemed uninhabitable.

She also takes much of the criticism when residents complain that the authority is lax in addressing rats, bed bug infestations and broken electrical sockets and elevators.

In mid-December, Mayor Brown showed his frustration over the agency's operations when he ordered city crews to help board up dozens of vacant units after The Buffalo News published photographs of open windows and doors at the Commodore Perry apartments.

[PHOTO GALLERY: Life in the Perry Street apartments]

In mid-January, a 93-year-old resident told The Buffalo News that she was terrified when both elevators at one of the Marine Drive apartment buildings were broken.

“I felt trapped,” said the woman, who lives in a 12th floor apartment in the building.

She was fearful of walking down the 11 flights of cement stairs and being unable to walk back up.

Marine Drive Apartments seen from the 29th floor of One Seneca Tower in 2015. (John Hickey/News file photo)

And two weeks ago, Sanders-Garrett acknowledged learning last month that tenants she asked a building manager to relocate in October because of the poor condition of their BMHA apartments weren’t yet moved out.

“I’m disgusted,” tenant commissioner Robin Edwards said.

“Me, too,” Sanders-Garrett responded.

“I don’t think they know what they are doing,” Smith said of Sanders-Garrett and her top aides.

Sanders-Garrett said she and her staff work hard to improve operations. She blames inadequate federal funding for most of the problems the agency faces, including cutting more than half its staff since 2005.

“I agree we can use more staffing. But we are living within our means,” Sanders-Garrett said. “The residences need new kitchens. The residences need new roofs. I can’t fix problems without money.”

The lack of federal money illustrates the importance of her attendance at industry conferences and meetings, she said. That is where she and others work to get more resources and create new programs to address problems facing the BMHA and other housing authorities across the nation.

“It’s why our voice is needed,” she said. “We have to get out there, not just as Buffalo, but as a collective, to fight for the resources necessary, to advocate for new and innovative programs, to make changes to help the BMHA.”

Leadership roles

Sanders-Garrett doesn’t just attend industry conferences and meetings, she takes leadership roles.

She has been asked to serve on committees and boards, according to national organization officials.

“We want knowledgeable folks on the board to help us develop policy on behalf of the housing authorities,” said Timothy G. Kaiser, executive director of the national Public Housing Authorities Directors Association, who said he approached Sanders-Garrett to serve on the board of trustees.

She brings knowledge as a housing authority director and as someone who started her career working for HUD, Kaiser said.

Sanders-Garrett was named to the public housing association board of trustees in 2014, when she also was named to the board of the New York State Public Housing Directors Association. The two organizations are at the forefront of lobbying on behalf of the public housing authorities in New York and nationally.

In addition, she has had a committee assignment since 2013 for the HAI Group public housing insurance organization, a company created by public housing organizations throughout the nation. Sanders-Garrett is one of about 150 committee members who help the organization set policy at quarterly meetings.

Sanders-Garrett has provided “invaluable input,” helping HAI address affordable housing policies, said Courtney Rice, HAI Group’s communications director.

“Being able to sit at the table and shape what the policies are give you an opportunity to do more to help the BMHA,” Sanders-Garrett said.

She then ticked off a list of accomplishments through these organizations.

They helped secure stimulus funds for housing authorities, bringing an extra $14 million to the BMHA. The money was used for new roofs, sidewalks, lighting, siding and furnaces at BMHA developments.

More recently, a successful lawsuit the national organizations filed against HUD on behalf of  hundreds of housing authorities, including the BMHA, is likely to save the Buffalo housing authority almost $4 million earmarked for building improvements.

And the statewide public housing group she works with persuaded Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo last year to put $2 billion in his budget for public housing improvements throughout New York, including Buffalo, although the State Legislature did not yet agree to free up the money.

The Perry public housing in Buffalo. (Mark Mulville/News file photo)

The public housing organizations also worked to get alternative funding programs as federal funds dry up, and through their efforts, HUD now allows housing authorities to use private financing for capital needs, and the public housing insurance organization now offers gap financing to help housing authorities with capital projects, she said.

The BMHA hopes to use these programs to demolish uninhabitable units, and reinvent several of its run-down developments, including the Commodore Perry, A.D Price and Frederick Douglass Towers apartments, she said. None of these projects has yet received funding.

[RELATED: Battle brewing over plans to replace A.D. Price public housing]

That federal officials haven’t provided the Buffalo housing agency requested money for some of these projects frustrates Seaman, the BMHA chairman.

In past years, Seaman said, he traveled to some conferences with Sanders-Garrett and joined her in efforts to explain to federal lawmakers the BMHA’s need for additional money, especially to demolish hundreds of vacant, dilapidated apartments in the Commodore Perry apartment complex.

“We’ve been trying to get someone to pay attention for four or five years,” Seaman said. “They are not listening, not willing to deal with the challenges.”

Conventions at resort locations

Public housing agencies provide shelter for some of the nation’s neediest people. But when the directors of these agencies meet to talk about shared problems, they attend conferences and meetings in four-star hotels, sometimes at resort communities in California and Florida.

Sanders-Garrett’s travel in 2015 started at the end of January with a weeklong stay in the Tampa, Fla., area, for a national conference of the Public Housing Authorities Directors Association at the Trade Winds Island Grand Resort in St. Pete Beach. Trade Winds Island advertises itself as “set on 20 lushly landscaped acres adjacent to a private white sand beach on the Gulf of Mexico.”

Two months later, toward the end of March, Sanders-Garrett spent a week in Southern California attending a public housing insurance meeting in Coronado, a resort city across the bay from San Diego.

Other conferences and meetings that year took her to the Hyatt Regency San Francisco, the Omni Hotel in Los Angeles and Doubletree Hotel in Charleston, S.C., as well as the Hyatt Regency Washington on Capitol Hill.

The Turning Stone Casino resort in Verona is one of the places that Dawn Sanders Garrett has visited. (Buffalo News file photo)

There also was a statewide conference that took her to the Turning Stone Casino resort in Verona.

“I can’t control where the meetings are,” Sanders-Garrett said.

The resorts are selected to attract agency directors, said Kaiser, the Public Housing Authorities Directors Association executive director.

“We had a member years ago who said, ‘To train people, you have to get them to come. You have to provide a location they want to go to,' ” he said. “I don’t think that diminishes the mission of members to provide safe, decent affordable housing to low-income people.”

Some conferences are advertised as places for directors to network and to see what vendors are offering for everything from computer software and pest control services to management and financial analysis.

Panel discussions allow authority directors to share experiences about developing affordable housing projects and pilot programs that encourage unemployed tenants to find work.

There sometimes is training in HUD policies as well as new ways to finance public housing, and sessions when executive directors brainstorm ideas to present to HUD, Congress or the insurance industry.

And sometimes members of Congress and their staffs are guest speakers, outlining what can be expected in upcoming budgets. When events are held in Albany or Washington, the public housing directors lobby lawmakers as well as state and federal housing officials.

More trips

Sanders-Garrett said she anticipates taking about the same number of trips this year as she did in 2016, when she went on eight trips.

But she emphasized that she remains flexible. She has previously – and will in the future – cancel a trip if BMHA work necessitates she remain in Buffalo, she said.

She skipped the national public housing directors conference held in Orlando, Fla., earlier this month.

“I was scheduled to go, but we are working on a number of development deals,” she said. “I felt it was best to stay here. The BMHA is the first priority.”

Topping that list of development deals is the $20 million plan to demolish and redevelop what’s left of the original A.D. Price homes on Spring Street. The buildings have been vacant since 2009, when residents were moved out and into nearby high-rise apartments.

Preservationists last month accused the BMHA of promoting demolition by neglect, and other critics said the housing agency continues to reduce the number of public housing units in Buffalo despite a waiting list for apartments.

The agency denied the demolition by neglect accusation, but agreed its housing stock has gone down as dilapidated units are demolished.

“We plan to get them replaced, ” said Modesto Candelario, Sanders-Garrett’s assistant executive director.

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