The head of Buffalo's Urban League says he made no secret of his displeasure with the city's process for hiring an agency to run a proposed $3.5 million Community Housing Center. Leroy Coles said he took his complaint all the way to the White House. As a result, the city is once again casting its net for an organization to run the center.
The Community Housing Center will be funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The center is part of a federal court settlement seeking to desegregate the region's low-income housing. Plans call for it to operate as a one-stop information center for poor families seeking public or private housing.
Under the terms of the settlement, the city is to contribute $100,000 a year over five years toward the cost of operating the center and solicit an outside agency to run it.
Last month, a committee of city housing officials recommended hiring HOME and the Rental Assistance Corp. However, the Common Council delayed signing off on their choice, after grass-roots groups raised questions about the committee's selection.
Coles shared concerns about the committee's selection of the Rental Assistance Corp., which was named as a defendant in the original Comer vs. Cisneros lawsuit alleging discriminatory practices by local housing agencies.
"When the selection was made, the defendants were chosen as operators. We just couldn't understand that, and there were a number of other organizations that had the same observation," Cole said.
In addition, he charged the committee did not give the Urban League adequate time to prepare its proposal.
"The Urban League didn't hear (about the city's requests for proposals) until several days after the fact. We got nothing in the mail as other groups did," Coles said.
However, other groups disputed that, insisting all potential applicants were apprised at the same time through advertisements placed in The Buffalo News and the Challenger, a weekly newspaper.
Meanwhile, several city officials privately acknowledged having heard rumors that the Buffalo Urban League took its complaints to HUD Secretary Andrew Cuomo and, ultimately, the White House.
"What you heard is true," Coles said. "I think my complaint was legitimate. This was a selection committee process that was flawed from the start."
Stephen T. Banko, confidential aide to Mayor Masiello, while not acknowledging the route the Urban League's complaints took before reaching the mayor's ears, said agency's concerns caused the administration to backtrack.
"We want to restore some confidence, not just in the program, but in the process that was used (to select an operator for the Community Housing Center," said Banko.
"When the Urban League expressed some concerns, we put our heads together and thought the best thing to do would be to solicit new bids from everybody that had bid before and circulate in (a) national publication," said Banko.
Banko said the request for proposals should appear in a U.S. Commerce Department publication, Commerce Business Daily, in two to three weeks.
Meanwhile, lawyers for the plaintiffs in the Comer vs. Cisneros lawsuit stopped short of endorsing either of two joint applications they had judged to be the best of the bunch.