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Marine Drive Apartments in trouble on the waterfront

From the window of her seventh-floor apartment, Toni Guercio looks out on a panoramic view of the Buffalo waterfront that would make a millionaire jealous. ¶ She especially enjoys the spring and summer sunsets, when a soft glow illuminates the Erie Basin Marina, the Buffalo Harbor and the historic lighthouse at the Buffalo Coast Guard station. ¶ “I just love that sunset,” she said. “When I’m having a tough day or I’m worried about something, it always makes me feel good.” ¶ For Guercio and other residents of the Marine Drive Apartments, the view comes at an affordable price. The 57-year-old former grocery store worker said she pays just $396.50 a month for her two-bedroom apartment, in a rent-controlled, government-owned complex of six 12-story buildings on a prime piece of waterfront property.

Marine Drive is the last bastion of the middle class and the poor on Buffalo’s downtown waterfront.

That’s a genuine waterfront bargain, especially considering that condominiums a short walk away on Rivermist Drive have recently sold for between $490,000 and $700,000.

There’s just one problem with Marine Drive. The aging complex is becoming a shabby eyesore, and not just in the opinion of Guercio and other residents.

Some city officials are concerned that the complex of buildings is a blight in a downtown area that has become one of the region’s tourism hot spots.

And several residents fear that the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority, which owns the 616-unit facility, is intentionally letting the place deteriorate so that tenants will leave and Marine Drive can be sold to a private developer.

“With all the development going on down here, they’re not going to let people like us stay here,” said Wesley Brewer, 82. “It’s a prime location. They want us to leave so they can make condos here.”

Officials of the housing authority said they are doing their best with limited resources and would like to do more. They estimate that it would cost at least $42 million for long-needed upgrades at the aging complex.

They say they are considering rent increases, but are not trying to force residents to leave. They also say there is no plan to sell Marine Drive.

“The waterfront, in that area of Buffalo, a lot of good things are happening down there,” said Modesto Candelerio, assistant executive director of the authority. “We want to be part of all that. How do we make Marine Drive better? It’s going to take resources and it’s going to take time to raise the revenue we need to improve it.”

But the many millions of dollars needed to upgrade Marine Drive do not appear to be coming anytime soon.

History of Marine Drive

Marine Drive Apartments is owned and run by the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority, which charges monthly rental fees ranging from $305 to $565, including most utilities.

The apartment complex was built for low-income residents in 1951, and was originally called Dante Place.

In the 1960s, the authority turned over the operations to a tenants’ association.

Many older tenants said the tenants’ association did an excellent and efficient job of running Marine Drive and maintaining the property for 40 years.

But critics accused the tenants’ association of discriminating against minorities who applied to move in and giving special preference to government employees and people with political connections.

“It was publicly subsidized segregation,” said Scott Gehl, executive director of Housing Opportunities Made Equal, a not-for-profit group that fights housing discrimination in Buffalo. “A lot of the older tenants say things were wonderful in the good old days, but it was a segregated place for people who were blessed with political connections.”

A federal investigation and legal action that HOME filed in 2002 led to a federal judge ordering the tenants’ association to revise its rental policies and give minorities a better chance to move to Marine Drive.

In 2004, the housing authority hired new managers to run Marine Drive.

The housing authority hired a private company for several years, and then created a not-for-profit corporation to manage the property in 2006.

But after a growing number of resident complaints about the management, the housing authority took over Marine Drive in 2011.

The complaints

Residents say Marine Drive has deteriorated sharply since the housing authority took over management in 2011. A News reporter spoke to 20 residents, most chosen at random. Only one resident said he felt the housing authority does a “pretty good job” of maintaining Marine Drive. The reviews from others were overwhelmingly negative.

Among the residents’ complaints:

Littered grounds, dirty and smelly stairwells and hallways, screens missing on some windows, malfunctioning elevators and heating systems, insufficient security, slow response to problems with plumbing and other maintenance issues, crumbling sidewalks, inadequate snow plowing, poorly maintained landscaping and sometimes, rats.

“One night, I opened the door to our building, and a rat came out of the garbage room and ran right past me,” Guercio said, referring to an incident on Mother’s Day. “Rats are getting to be a big problem here. The place is getting so bad I can hardly stand it anymore.”

Her complaints were echoed by many other residents, including John F. Nostrant, 74, a former restaurant owner and bartender who has lived at Marine Drive for almost 20 years.

“Here we are, sitting next to millions and millions of dollars in waterfront development, and what do you see here? Rundown buildings, scraggly old bushes, dirty grounds and garbage that doesn’t get picked up,” Nostrant said. “This should be a showplace … but it’s terrible.”

Kewpy McCullough, 20, a fast-food restaurant worker who lives at Marine Drive with her nine-month-old baby, Jordyn, said that maintenance staff does not respond to complaints quickly.

“I had mold in my apartment. I had to call them for three weeks before they came and cleaned it up. Now it is growing back again. We live on the fourth floor. I have to carry my baby up the stairs a lot because the elevators keep breaking down.”

And Shamia Nicholson, 42, said she and her 3-year-old son, Shomari Sweat, moved out of their apartment last November after a malfunctioning toilet spewed raw sewage through the apartment.

“We’re still in a temporary apartment,” she said on May 18. “They’re still cleaning our apartment up for us. It still isn’t ready.”

Another plumbing horror story came from Joseph Bonds, a 59-year-old minister who lives at Marine Drive with his wife and son. The toilet flooded so badly in the apartment above theirs that “sewage was leaking down through our ceiling,” Bonds said.

“It was horrible, I mean urine, and fecal matter ... You wouldn’t believe the smell. I had to constantly call the BMHA for three days before they finally came and helped us.”

BMHA management

BMHA administrators say they are doing the best they can with limited money.

Marine Drive receives no government subsidy, according to Candelario.

“Marine Drive’s operations are entirely funded on the rents we collect,” he said, adding that administrators have to closely watch the finances.

“The staff is lean over there,” Candelario said. “I go over to Marine Drive periodically, not every day. There have been occasions when I am not happy with the way it looks, and I tell the staff to fix it. Usually, I think it looks pretty good.”

And some residents make exaggerated complaints about Marine Drive, he said, while acknowledging that the authority wishes more money was available to renovate the buildings and hire more workers to maintain them.

“The property is more than 50 years old. It’s never had a major facelift,” Candelerio said. “We had a physical needs assessment done in 2012. At that time, it was estimated that it would cost $42 million to renovate the plumbing, the electrical systems and just to improve the basic necessities in those buildings. If we had the resources, we’d love to upgrade Marine Drive.”

And though some residents complain, Candelario notes that Marine Drive has few vacancies and a long waiting list to get in.

“It is still a very desirable place to live,” he said.

Waterfront renaissance

While residents of Marine Drive complain about their individual situations, some city leaders also are worried that deteriorating conditions are a blight on the multimillion-dollar efforts to turn the waterfront into a showplace.

In recent years, hundreds of millions of government dollars have been spent to build or improve downtown waterfront attractions adjacent to Marine Drive.

When the weather is nice, thousands of people each day visit Canalside, Erie Basin Marina, the Buffalo and Erie County Naval & Military Park and other attractions located just a few steps from the apartments at Marine Drive.

“Our waterfront is really taking off. You can’t just have this big place rotting right in the midst of all that,” said Fillmore District Council Member David A. Franczyk, whose district includes Marine Drive. “You’ve got this place that people look at and say, ‘What are we going to do with that?’”

And Common Council President Darius G. Pridgen, who lives in an upscale waterfront condo a few blocks from Marine Drive, also voiced deep concern.

“The only thing I know about is the exterior of the buildings,” Pridgen said. “The buildings are weathered. They’re dated. They definitely need an update.”

Going forward

So where to go from here?

Gehl, of Housing Opportunities Made Equal, said the BMHA needs to find a way to come up with money to upgrade the buildings and better maintain them.

“I think that, with an adequate public investment, it could be modernized,” he said. “It could be a wonderful sociological development on a waterfront that is otherwise set aside for upper-income people. The city needs to invest in it. It would be criminal to allow it to deteriorate to the point that it’s taken over by a private developer and turned into a high-end property.”

The brick buildings need to be painted and power-washed at the very least, said Joseph A. Mascia, who sits on the BMHA board of commissioners as a tenant representative from Marine Drive.

But all that takes money, and without a subsidy, that means Marine Drive improvements will have to come from rents from the middle and low-income tenants.

Candelario, the BMHA assistant executive director, said options include raising the rents at Marine Drive to pay for badly-needed repairs and more maintenance workers.

Tenants and sources at the authority said the BMHA has discussed raising rents, at first for new residents, and later, for those already living there.

One recent applicant was told that an apartment that formerly cost $392.50 will cost $567 – a hike of 44 percent, one tenant said.

The authority has no plans to sell Marine Drive, Candelario said. “It’s an option we have discussed when we talk about our options,” he said. But “there is no formal proposal to put it up for sale.”

Pridgen has heard suggestions that the Marine Drive Apartments should be torn down, or sold to a private owner who would turn the buildings into high-priced condominiums. Both he and Franczyk said they oppose that idea.

“Waterfront housing should not be limited to the wealthy,” Pridgen said. “We should welcome diversity on the waterfront – not only racial diversity, but the diversity of people at different income levels.”