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STUCK IN THE HOUSE <br> AS BUFFALO'S PUBLIC HOUSING AUTHORITY WRESTLES WITH RED TAPE, HUNDREDS OF VOUCHERS THAT WOULD HELP POOR PEOPLE RENT APARTMENTS ARE GOING UNUSED

When Buffalo settled a landmark housing discrimination case five years ago, the city's municipal housing agency received enough subsidies to help 800 poor families get out of public housing and rent their own apartments.

Today, about 620 of those highly sought-after subsidies remain unused.

And it's not because people don't want them. More than 11,000 families are on a waiting list.

"It's aggravating," said Marie Tyson, a Buffalo woman who has waited six months for a rental subsidy. "It angers me because obviously they could be put to good use."

The problems and delays in allocating the subsidies, known as Section 8 vouchers, have raised questions about the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority's management.

Why have hundreds of vouchers gone unused while thousands of qualified families have waited more than three years to get them?

And why did the city and federal government create a third Section 8 provider, the Housing Authority, when two others already exist?

The questions are being asked as the Housing Authority wrestles with its newfound role as a Section 8 provider, part of a larger plan for expanding its mission beyond traditional public housing.

Critics claim the experiment is failing.

"Given that Erie County already had two proven Section 8 administrators, which have won awards for high performance, I never understood the rationale behind setting up another Section 8 program," said Scott Gehl, executive director of Housing Opportunities Made Equal, a fair-housing group.

Gehl is quick to praise the work of John Tarapacki, director of the Housing Authority's program, and acknowledge that some of the delays can be traced to the learning curve that comes with starting a new program.

But in the end, he added, two years have passed and only 180 vouchers -- less than 25 percent of the total given the authority -- have been allocated to poor people in need.

In its defense, the Housing Authority has run into obstacles, most notably the restrictions and conditions placed on the vouchers by the 1996 housing discrimination settlement known as the Comer case.

In 1989, Jesse Comer and seven other African-Americans filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of 96,000 poor people in Erie County. They accused the city, suburbs and federal government of discrimination against minorities seeking public or subsidized housing.

The Comer plaintiffs won their case seven years later, and the settlement resulted in the
Housing Authority getting 800 new rental subsidies. But unlike other vouchers, these subsidies carried several restrictions.

The new vouchers require that first preference be given to minority public housing tenants or those on the public housing waiting list.

In short, they could not be used initially for the 11,000 families on a waiting list administered by the Rental Assistance Corp. and Belmont Shelter Corp., the county's two Section 8 providers.

The vouchers also include restrictions on where people can initially look for a new home. To encourage desegregation, they require families to first look for a home outside poor neighborhoods and outside areas that are largely minority.

Housing Authority officials say the restrictions have made it difficult to get the vouchers into the hands of poor people because many minority public housing tenants don't want to leave their neighborhoods.

"I wish our success rate was better," said Tarapacki, director of the Housing Authority's program. "It doesn't do me any good to have these open vouchers. I want to get them leased up."

Tarapacki took over the program earlier this year, and even Housing Authority critics admit he's worked hard to overcome the problems at the authority.

Still, it's hard to ignore the fact that 620 vouchers have gone unused while 11,000 families sit waiting for them.

The Housing Authority's performance also contrasts with the Rental Assistance Corp., the city's regular Section 8 provider. Rental Assistance received 750 new vouchers as part of the Comer settlement and allocated them to families within a year -- though it was not subject to the same restrictions as the Housing Authority.

Mary Shine, Rental Assistance's executive director, would not comment on the problems at the Housing Authority but said the demand for vouchers at her agency makes it easy to find qualified low-income families.

"It's not hard," Shine said. "And once you provide vouchers, people tend to find housing."

While acknowledging the obstacles facing the Housing Authority, critics claim the authority needs to do more to help itself. For example, the authority could create its own Section 8 waiting list, instead of offering the vouchers only to those already in public housing or on the public housing waiting list. But that's a step the authority seems reluctant to take, critics said.

As an alternative, lawyers for the Comer plaintiffs are encouraging families on Rental Assistance's waiting list to apply for public housing so they can then qualify for the Housing Authority vouchers.

"We're trying to resolve these problems," said Michael Hanley, a lawyer with the Greater Upstate Law Project in Rochester. "I don't think there's any question that there are eligible families who would love to have these subsidies."

Even if the Housing Authority does resolve its problems, the question of who should administer the city's Section 8 program will remain.

Gehl thinks the work should stay with Rental Assistance because of its successes and the Housing Authority's failures.

"The (Housing Authority's) program has fallen far short of the level of performance of the other Section 8 programs in Erie County," Gehl said.

Housing Authority officials agree with Gehl on one point: Having more than one Section 8 provider is ludicrous.

"Is it administratively inefficient to have two or three Section 8 administrators? I don't disagree with that," said Gillian Brown, the authority's chief counsel.

Brown said most cities rely on public housing authorities to administer Section 8 and Buffalo should do the same so the Housing Authority can thrive as an institution.

"We need to control our own destiny," he said. "We need to start thinking like a business, and that means diversification and thinking out of the box."

e-mail: pfairbanks@buffnews.com

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