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Amherst IDA chief urges new policy on senior housing tax breaks

James J. Allen, the Amherst Industrial Development Agency’s executive director, is recommending that the group’s directors approve a new county-wide policy that would place additional restrictions on tax breaks for senior housing projects, especially those that would build market-rate apartments aimed at middle- and upper-class seniors.

The policy is aimed at bringing the six IDAs in Erie County under a standard policy that provides guidelines on what types of senior housing projects could be eligible for tax breaks and which ones would not. The policy is the latest attempt by IDAs to tackle the often controversial topic of how to handle market-rate housing for senior citizens.

The policy, if approved by the county’s IDAs, also would impose more restrictions on the ability of development agencies to offer tax breaks for those projects than they face under current standards. The Amherst IDA and the Erie County Industrial Development Agency both imposed moratoriums as the new policy was hammered out over the past 18 months.

“It’s more restrictive,” Allen said. “It restricts us from what they currently allows us to do.”

The Amherst IDA doesn’t have any senior housing projects that are seeking tax breaks, with developers generally waiting to see what happens with the new policy, Allen said.

The policy, approved earlier this month by the Erie County IDA’s policy committee and sent to each of the county’s IDAs for consideration, would cover for-profit senior citizen housing projects where at least 90 percent of the units are rented to, and occupied, by people who are at least 60 years old. The policy does not cover low-income, subsidized housing projects, which are eligible for incentives under different state laws; upscale senior housing projects; or “life care communities.”

The Amherst IDA is expected to discuss the senior housing policy at its April meeting, although a vote could come later. Other IDAs, such as the Clarence IDA, have indicated that they have no interest in providing tax breaks for senior housing.

Allen said the proposed policy gives IDAs flexibility to subsidize – or not subsidize – market-rate senior housing, depending on their preference.

The policy includes nine guidelines to help IDAs determine whether a project is eligible for tax breaks, although it does not require a project to meet all of them, nor does it set a standard for how many of the criteria it must satisfy to receive incentives.

“You could make this more restrictive than it’s intended to be,” Allen said.

Among the guidelines, a project would be regarded more favorably if it has the written backing of local municipal officials and if it is located within the community’s central area and falls within its master plan. Projects also would be evaluated favorably if they would help create walkable neighborhoods and if an independent market study shows an unmet need within a particular neighborhood or community.

The policy also favors projects with a significant portion of the population within a one-to-five-mile radius at or below median income levels, and developments that offer amenities and services that aren’t available at other nearby senior housing. The ability of the developer to finance the project is another factor, as is whether it will be targeted toward – and at least half-occupied – by seniors whose income is at or below 60 to 80 percent of the county median income.

IDA board member Michelle Marconi said the policy does not seem to be an outgrowth from a University at Buffalo study, which showed that fewer than 1 percent of seniors said they would move out of the area because of a lack of senior housing choices. That study has been frequently cited by critics of tax breaks for senior housing as a reason why market-rate projects should not receive incentives.

email: drobinson@buffnews.com