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Marine residents riled up ; Voice their wish to manage apartments at meeting with Housing Authority brass

The tension was palpable long before the meeting began between public housing executives and residents of Marine Drive Apartments, who came to hear about plans to take over the management of their waterfront complex.

Adding to their concern are tens of thousands of dollars in missing money under the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority's oversight.

The authority executive director tried to set a civil tone as the night's first speaker, but it didn't last long.

Fifteen minutes into the recent meeting, residents interrupted and jeered the executives as they made their presentations and tried to answer heated questions about the transition. Shouting matches broke out repeatedly, and two people almost came to blows.

One resident summed up the sentiment of most of the overflow crowd:

"We don't want you here," said Mary Ryan, to cheers from the audience that filled Marine Drive's community room, the adjoining kitchen and spilled into the hallway.

The commotion centered around plans by the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority to take over management of the seven-tower, 616-unit complex effective Tuesday, as well as tens of thousands of dollars in missing money while the authority oversaw outside managers.

Marine Drive -- which overlooks Erie Canal Harbor -- is not public housing, but it is owned and overseen by the authority. It houses approximately 1,000 residents, many of whom believe the authority's failure to effectively monitor two former management companies is evidence that it is not up to the job.

In addition, they charge that the Housing Authority is violating a 2004 agreement that it would never seek to manage the property. They've filed a lawsuit over the issue. Some human service organizations, like Hispanics United, and a growing number of local, state and federal politicians have expressed worry, too.

But the authority, which owns the property, defended its plan, saying it has 76 years of experience in managing real estate. And since it ultimately has management responsibility for the property, the move simply is about taking on daily responsibility.

"It's not a takeover. But now, in addition to oversight responsibilities, BMHA will now be managing it on a daily basis," Executive Director Dawn Sanders said during the informational meeting.

The level of services will remain the same or be even better, and rent, which is controlled and based on income, will not change "right now," Assistant Executive Director Modesto Candelario told the crowd.

>Suit filed in January

Angry residents are not convinced their quality of life won't be negatively affected. The Resident Council filed a State Supreme Court lawsuit Jan. 19 to keep the authority out. Instead, they favor returning the complex to resident management, similar to a 40-year co-op arrangement that ended in 2004 following allegations of unfair admission practices that discouraged minorities and favored those with political ties.

The community has become too diverse for those problems to resurface, said Elizabeth Harris, president of the Resident Council. She has lived in Marine Drive for almost 12 years and is African-American. She noted that Hispanics, white people and other blacks are on the council, something you wouldn't have seen 10 years ago.

"I don't think we will ever go back to that," she said of the admissions issues that arose when tenants ran the complex before. "I think people know better now. People have gotten smarter. We'll never go back to those days."

Other critics of the authority pointed to the fact that when residents ran it, there were never any allegations of missing bank records, unreconciled balances or missing rent money -- all of which surfaced in a recent forensic audit of Hutchens Kissling, the management company that ran the apartments from 2004 to 2007.

The audit identified $95,584 in missing money owed to the authority by Hutchens Kissling plus a possible $8,922 in overpaid management fees. The figure could be higher, auditors said, but missing bank records, incomplete bank statements and a lack of financial records prevented them from painting a complete picture.

The audit concluded that the security deposit account contains $45,000 less than might be expected and that it's possible that laundry room revenue was $105,000 more than Hutchens Kissling acknowledged.

Adding insult to injury, there was a decline in revenue during the Hutchens Kissling years, including a substantial increase in vacancies and the fact that past-due accounts peaked during that era.

There has been no discussion among authority officials about whether to seek legal action against Hutchens Kissling. A cost analysis would be performed first to determine if it is worth it, Candelario said.

Hutchens Kissling did not return repeated calls to comment.

>Memorandum cited

The audit also found that many of the discrepancies carried over into the era of Erie Regional Housing Development Corp., the management company hired by the authority from 2007 until Jan 31.

Nestor Hernandez, executive director of the Belle Center on Maryland Street, where Erie Regional is located, said, "They did their best to rectify any prior mistakes made by [Hutchens Kissling]."

The Resident Council wants to manage Marine Drive on an interim basis, perhaps until a "fair" request-for-proposal process is completed.

Sciandra said that would be impossible.

"In essence there are a lot of state rules and regulations that we have our managers go through," explained Sanders. "Individuals who have that expertise are employed by the BMHA. So that is why it is necessary for BMHA to manage it."

Authority officials acknowledged problems with past management companies it hired, which is one reason why it wants to run Marine Drive itself.

"Where we find ourselves a lot of times is spending a lot of manpower overseeing somebody that is not an employee of BMHA," said Candelario. "Now, we don't have anybody that we have to [oversee] and double check and make sure that they are doing things properly."

But the residents' lawsuit points to a 2004 "memorandum of understanding" they claim the authority violated. In it, the authority said it "commits to the tenants that the development will not be managed or maintained by [the authority's] existing staff and will continue to be maintained as a separate development with a separate management company and separate maintenance and office workers."

They want the court to enforce that.

During the contentious meeting with tenants, Candelario said the agreement was made to calm residents' fears at the time that they were going to lose their apartments because the co-op was no longer going to manage it.

"They were afraid of losing their homes. The memo of understanding was to ensure you would not lose your apartment under the new management," he said.

Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, South Council Member Michael Kearns and representatives of Rep. Brian Higgins and State Sen. Tim Kennedy joined about 100 residents in a recent protest against the transition.

>Plan to move forward

And the state oversight body did not approve the authority's management proposal for Marine Drive. In a late December letter, the Division of Homes & Community Renewal asked for a detailed explanation of the takeover plan, including a proposed budget.

Candelario said the authority has responded to each of the questions or comments, but he has not heard back yet from the division. It's not something that will stop the transition, he added.

"We are more comfortable if they approve it, but we will move forward if we don't receive approval because the plan that we provided to DHCR, it is our opinion that it complies with the state regulations that are applicable to Marine Drive," Candelario said.

While a few residents at the informational meeting backed the takeover plan, they were largely outnumbered.

"We moved here looking for a better quality of life. We're afraid it's going to go down now," said Gijeid Soto, who has lived there with her husband and two daughters for the past five years. "We'll see what happens, but I don't know."

e-mail: dswilliams@buffnews.com

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