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ECIDA should toughen policy limiting tax breaks on apartments for seniors

The Erie County Industrial Development Agency has taken a small step toward reining in unnecessary handouts to developers. But it should go further.

The agency gave preliminary approval for a new countywide policy that would, if adopted in full, place additional restrictions on tax breaks for senior housing projects, giving particular attention to market-rate apartments aimed at middle- and upper-income seniors.

The policy will be helpful, bringing the six IDAs in Erie County under one set of rules on the types of senior housing projects eligible for tax breaks.

But we agree with IDA board member and Amherst Supervisor Dr. Barry Weinstein, who voted against the new policy because, “I’m opposed to incentivizing market-rate senior housing.”

Here, here.

The ECIDA’s half-a-loaf policy sheds light on something that should require no explanation. Nor any incentive. The theory is that senior housing is needed to keep those residents from being priced out of the county, and incentives will keep the rents down. Who is to say that a developer would pass along that savings to residents, or that residents couldn’t afford unsubsidized rents? And there’s the usual argument that a project might be built even without IDA tax breaks.

The vote, taken a few weeks ago, sends the proposed policy changes to all of Erie County’s municipalities and school districts for comment. Then the IDA has the option of revising the policy before it takes a vote to finally approve it. The county’s suburban IDAs will vote at that point.

There are useful changes in the proposed nine guidelines for evaluating senior housing proposals, in particular ones that would look favorably upon a project if it is located within the community’s central area and falls within its master plan. And projects would be viewed favorably if helping to “create walkable neighborhoods and if an independent market study shows a need within a particular neighborhood or community.”

Such requirements would avoid a project being plopped into an otherwise desolate area and away from amenities such as a grocery store. As reported, the policy would favor 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.”

These ideas will tighten the rules somewhat, while still lacking specific, strict guidelines and remaining dependent upon the evaluators’ interpretation of whether those standards have been met.

The proposed policy is at least a start in reforming the generous IDA decisions doling out tax breaks. However, incentives are not allowed for market-rate housing; we shouldn’t be creating a loophole for developers targeting middle- and upper-class seniors.