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Orchard Park housing bias cited <br> Federal complaint filed in failed bid to build senior homes

People Inc. and a Buffalo fair housing agency have filed a federal complaint charging the Town of Orchard Park with housing discrimination.

The charge stems from People Inc.'s attempt to build affordable senior citizen housing, and the Town Board's refusal to rezone property necessary for the apartment building.

Orchard Park town officials deny the charges, although they had not been served with the complaint Monday.

"We don't believe there was any discrimination," Town Attorney Leonard Berkowitz said.

The complaint was filed with the Buffalo office of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. The department will investigate the complaint to determine if there is reasonable cause to believe discrimination has occurred.

"The Orchard Park Town Board has, through a series of actions, chosen to block construction of this 43-unit affordable housing for senior citizens," said Scott W. Gehl, executive director of Housing Opportunities Made Equal (HOME).

HOME was called in by People Inc., when the agency encountered resistance during the approval process for its second senior apartment building in Orchard Park. People Inc. asked the town to rezone 2.1 acres of land on Mid County Drive to residential, with a senior designation.

During the town's review, the Planning Board asked for the ZIP codes of all residents in Carnation Apartments, People Inc.'s other senior apartments in Orchard Park.

"This request was intended to learn whether residents of Carnation had come from the more racially diverse cities of Lackawanna and Buffalo," the complaint states.

Town officials denied charges of discrimination last year, stating they were concerned about providing services, and concerned about the loss of industrial land where the project would be built.

The Town Board unanimously denied the rezoning April 7, saying the rezoning is inconsistent with the comprehensive plan, it would take away valuable industrial land, and other senior housing projects have been approved or are in the pipeline in the town.

People Inc.'s attorney, Ralph C. Lorigo, maintains the property was not industrial, and did not need to be rezoned. He said it was zoned commercial several years ago, and the Town Board did not rezone it back to industrial. The apartment would have been allowed under the commercial zoning. But town officials said when they rezoned the property commercial four years ago, there was a stipulation that it revert to industrial if the project did not go forward.

Rhonda Frederick, executive director of People Inc., said the agency has worked with the town in the past to create a number of group homes and the senior apartments. This is the first time it has filed a complaint against a municipality.

"It's very unfortunate, and this is not something we entered into lightly. We want to see seniors treated equally," she said. "Typically we're able to work with elected officials." The complaint also cites an Oct. 21, 2009, article in The Buffalo News that quoted town officials as saying they hoped the affordable housing would serve town residents.

Gehl notes that more than 98 percent of Orchard Park residents are white, according to the latest census.

"If 98 percent of Orchard Park residents are not African American, the implicit idea of any residency requirement would necessarily have a discriminatory effect," Gehl said.

The complaint also contends the town has accepted federal block grant funding but failed to comply with its annual certification that it has "affirmatively furthered fair housing."

"HOME does not file discrimination cases lightly, and we do not file cases against municipalities without substantial evidence we believe we have in this matter," Gehl said.

The town attorney said the town will vigorously defend against the complaint.

e-mail: bobrien@buffnews.com

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