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CITY'S NEW-HOUSE PROGRAM COULD USE SOME IMPROVING LOTTERY, INCOME STUDY, CAN AID A GOOD EFFORT

BUFFALO'S subsidized-housing program may be viewed by some as a model effort. But the healthy percentage of city workers who capitalize on the taxpayer-funded program suggests an area for improvement: The city should pick subsidy recipients by lottery rather than on the first-come, first-served basis now used.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with city workers benefiting from a program designed to help Buffalo residents buy quality homes while simultaneously fighting neighborhood blight.

But the mere suspicion that those inside City Hall might have an advantage at getting the government subsidies should be enough to prompt city officials to come up with a better way of picking the winners.

That suspicion is easily stirred by word that one of every five participants in one such program was a city worker. It is not hard to imagine that those tuned to the City Hall grapevine might catch word of available subsidies -- which can range up to $25,000 on an $80,000 home -- before an official announcement is made.

A lottery system would eliminate any such advantage, as well as skepticism among non-city workers.

While changing the selection process, city officials also should re-examine the methods used to publicize the program. They should be sure that community agencies, churches and other organizations are being effectively tapped so that all segments of the community are being reached.

While the selection process should be improved, city officials also might look at income eligibility limits that have allowed some home buyers with incomes up to $70,000 to get the government grants.

One argument for such liberal limits -- the city aims to give half the subsidies to those earning under $33,500 and half to those over that line -- is that the program was meant to build neighborhoods, not just houses. Thus, middle-income homeowners should be included in the mix to enhance diversity and stability -- a valid goal.

Program participants also must secure private loans to finance the portion of the purchase not covered by the subsidies. They must have incomes sufficient to persuade bankers to issue them mortgages.

Still, during a time of scarce public resources, does it make sense for the city to approve subsidies for those earning $50,000 or more? And if so, should there be lower limits on what percentage of the funds are used in that way?

Those are questions the Common Council should examine as members take another look at a valuable effort to increase Buffalo's housing stock and strengthen neighborhoods.

The subsidy program already has built more than 350 new homes in the city. But another 800 are on the drawing board. That means it is not too late for Buffalo to use its initial experiences to make sure the remainder of the program benefits those it was intended to help.

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