The massive replacement of the Lakeview Projects -- the brown-bricked, two-story apartments separated from LaSalle Park by cars and trucks speeding along the Niagara Thruway -- is being done through a federal program known as Hope VI.
That's appropriate enough for a project that is supposed to deliver what its name implies -- hope.
Hope for the aging Lakeview Projects, and hope for the stabilization and renewal of the entire Lower West Side.
But as the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority prepares to break ground on the largest and most expensive public housing revitalization effort in the city's history, controversy swirls around the $78 million plan.
Key questions include:
Does it make sense to tear down apartments that have just gone through $20 million in renovations?
Is it worth building new public housing at a cost of $136,000 per unit?
Is it possible to attract higher-income residents to an area once considered too depressed and dangerous for comfort?
Can the Lower West Side truly be stabilized by also investing Hope VI money in properties well beyond Lakeview?
Reality bites down hard on projects such as Hope VI; its teeth are filled with housing advocates and community naysayers.
The effort stems from a 1989 lawsuit alleging widespread segregation of the city's public housing projects. At the time, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development was getting ready to launch a new program -- Hope VI -- to replace severely distressed public housing. HUD directed the city to apply for Hope VI money as a way to revitalize Lakeview.
But critics say the project is a gross
waste of money that will completely demolish a perfectly decent housing development and do nothing to improve the city's troubled residential market.
"Given the economic condition of the city and the lack of any real demand for more affordable housing, these things don't create the makings of real success," said Steve Polowitz, a real estate lawyer and developer who serves as president of Buffalo Neighborhood Housing Services.
There are no guarantees, officials of the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority admit. But like it or not, Hope VI construction is about to get under way. If it ends up being anything like it's supposed to be, it could change the landscape of the Lower West Side forever.
Big ideas and big delays
Some people can hardly wait for that change. Georgia Wright has spent years looking forward to the building of the new Hope VI-Lakeview units. She could use more space than the cramped living quarters she's made do with for nearly 25 years on the second floor of her three-story senior walk-up.
"I have to live and hope each and every day that I will live long enough to move into the new place," said Wright, 83. "I want to see it before I pass."
She still has a little waiting to do. The first phase of Hope VI, about to get under way, is scheduled for completion by next fall. It involves building 138 mid-rise and townhouse units.
The second phase, slated to begin in the spring, would then demolish 38 Lakeview buildings and create 160 new townhouses and duplexes.
Finally, the third phase, planned for next fall, would involve refurbishing or building 160 homes off site, throughout the rest of the Lower West Side. The current projections for the completion of all three phases is late 2002.
Taken together, the project represents an ambitious plan that involves a significant amount of red tape and financial risk, which Hope VI leaders say leads to inevitable delays.
Some consider it ironic that Hope VI has taken so many years, since what the residents originally wanted was not demolition and do-over but a rehabilitation of the existing property.
The Housing Authority has been heavily criticized for tearing down what one community advocate called "Buffalo's best family project."
But Housing Authority officials did try to take a less extreme route. A 1996 application for substantial rehabilitation was denied. They tried again and got a $28 million Hope VI grant but still ran into trouble financing a plan to demolish 83 percent of Lakeview and renovate the rest.
HUD eventually "strongly recommended" complete demolition, deciding that approach would likely get greater financial support, said Todd Nelson, coordinator for the Hope VI-Lakeview. It's less risky and less expensive.
The resulting plan included 4 percent state tax credits worth about $7 million for the first phase of the project.
The mix of public and private money, and the various accounting rules and regulations, contributed to the project's delay, officials said.
Cost and controversy
Yet Hope VI funding remains controversial. So does the cost, pegged by the developer and authority officials at $136,500 per unit, including Housing Authority fees. Some critics believe it will be closer to $250,000 per unit.
While the project is expected to total nearly $80 million, full financing has been secured for only the first phase, which is expected to cost $18 million, according to the developer, Israel Roizman. The financing is coming from private, state and federal funds, Roizman said.
Yet critics question whether Lakeview's 665 units really need rebuilding and point to the more than $20 million that has been spent there, $16 million of it in the past decade. Housing Authority officials respond that only $3 million has been spent since 1995, when the authority began seeing Hope VI funding, and most of that was for health and safety work. Some community activists also contend that new, low-income public development is the last thing needed in a city with a declining population and a glut of low-cost housing. They call the project overpriced and say it's designed to boost the Housing Authority's profile and Roizman's bank account, not give residents what they want.
And it is true that some Lakeview residents, particularly senior citizens, oppose the demolition.
"I've never believed Lakeview was an eyesore," said Louise Gray, 68, sitting in a comfortable recliner near her oxygen machine. "Lakeview was a successful project until the beautiful people came and did everything they could to destroy us."
On the flip side, many other Lakeview residents are eager for the Hope VI units and frustrated that they aren't already done.
"I always thought it was great to have new housing," said Myrna Sosa, who has lived at Lakeview for four years. "This is an opportunity to live in a better place, a bigger place. I don't know why anybody doesn't want that."
According to the development agreement, Roizman -- a major Democratic contributor with White House ties -- is expected to receive a 12.1 percent overall developer fee from the project, excluding other deferred fees and additional income for managing the project after construction.
Roizman said he expects his percentage to translate into about $5 million under current assumptions, though some calculations put his fee closer to $8 million. Hope VI officials stress that little, if any, of his fee will be paid with public money, coming instead from private money through the sale of the tax credits.
Those familiar with Hope VI financing also say that Roizman's percentage falls within acceptable limits, though it's the highest allowed by HUD.
As for need, the Housing Authority points to its waiting list of thousands to prove that demand exists. It also says HUD would not fund enough vouchers to let all of the residents enter the private market, and that many residents don't want to leave.
Hope for the Lower West Side
Housing Authority Executive Director Sharon M. West bristles when she hears people suggest that the amount being spent on the poor is too much.
"What are we supposed to say, we're not supposed to build nice homes because they're for poor people?" said West, her voice rising.
The authority's vice chairman, Modesto Candelario, added, "If you give people a poor product, you're going to get a poor product in return."
That basic philosophy is what supports 129 Hope VI projects nationwide. And it's the same philosophy that Buffalo proponents cling to as contractors begin building apartments, townhouses, duplexes and flats that will give Lakeview tenants more housing choices than they ever had before.
But Lakeview residents wouldn't be the only one benefiting. As former Housing Authority Executive Director Michael Clarke put it, "The real issue is how do you get rid of the really bad housing around the project? That's where the heavy duty work needs to happen."
Buffalo's Hope VI project is unique in its plan to address this problem.
The third phase of the project actually targets 160 rundown properties and vacant lots scattered throughout the Lower West Side. It earmarks $18 million to rehabilitate the properties where it's possible and to construct new homes where it's not.
By redeveloping neglected West Side properties in concentrated groups, the Housing Authority hopes to stabilize neighborhoods in transition and improve the pockets of blight that scar the community.
The city has not experienced much success with this type of endeavor, so it has yet to be seen whether a public housing authority that deals with the residential needs of the poor can succeed where other plans and good intentions to revitalize West Side housing have failed.
The Housing Authority also has the additional challenge of trying to attract higher-income residents to live not only in the surrounding community, but in Lakeview itself.
A significant component of the Hope VI plan is to encourage the creation of a mixed-income community. By building modern and attractive homes at Lakeview, the Housing Authority hopes that wealthier residents might be tempted to move in.
Critics say the Housing Authority is foolish to attempt to achieve a lofty goal so far removed from its realm of experience and so far afield from its basic charge.
Get a significant mix of incomes at Lakeview and having the resources to complete the project are the biggest challenges facing Hope VI, Clarke and others say. The good news is that the Housing Authority has an enormous amount of resources -- at least enough to get the first phase of the project off the ground. Gathering the financial support for the remaining two phases, however, still remains a problem.
In West's mind, it's still the biggest problem. But she and others continue to sell the dream of Hope VI with the belief that the vision is worth all the effort.