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Hamburg’s housing law amended to discourage gentrification

When new homes are built, where should low-income people go? Where are they supposed to live?

These are questions cities like Buffalo are grappling with as new developments arise amid worries that gentrification will push out the less affluent.

In the Town of Hamburg – where Christopher Hull, the town’s director of Community Development, has been trying to answer those questions for decades – the latest tweak to its fair housing law is the first of its kind in Western New York.

The amendment provides affordable housing for people who would not otherwise be able to move into a market-rate apartment or condominium.

An example of what is known as inclusionary zoning, the new provision requires developers to set aside 10 percent of the apartments in multi-family developments of eight or more units for people making less than the median income in Erie County. A single person must make $37,700 or less to qualify for the lower rent, and the income for a family of four would have to be $53,850 or lower.

In return, for each affordable unit they build, developers can add another market-rate unit, increasing the density of the project.

“There’s such a disparity between the economic situation in Western New York between the wealthy and non-wealthy,” Hull said. Having them live in proximity to each other helps bridge the disparity.

This is the same type of program People United for Sustainable Housing in Buffalo, or PUSH Buffalo, and other groups, such as Open Buffalo and the Partnership for the Public Good, are advocating as the city updates its zoning and land use plans with its new Green Code.

Hamburg also extended protections under its fair housing law to people experiencing discrimination based on their military status or gender identity.

The idea is to make sure people of varying incomes can live together in a community.

Scott W. Gehl, executive director of HOME, Housing Opportunities Made Equal, an agency advocating for fair housing and providing services for those who have experienced housing discrimination, explains it this way:

“What is happening is that as new housing has been developed, it has generally been developed for upper-income people,” he said. “In order for communities to really be sustainable in the long term, you have to have some socio-economic diversity.”

Hamburg was a leader early on, Gehl said. The town adopted its own fair housing law in 1986 – three years before Buffalo Mayor James D. Griffin vetoed the city’s fair housing law.

“They have done things in Hamburg quite quietly that in the City of Buffalo, there has been tremendous controversy about,” he said. “We’re having this tremendous struggle in the supposedly cosmopolitan City of Buffalo, yet the Town of Hamburg just did it.”

He also said Hamburg was an early leader in prohibiting discrimination based on source of income, which Gehl said is the leading type of reported housing discrimination in Western New York.

“We believe it is very often used as a pretext to discriminate against people for reason of disability or race or families with children,” Gehl said.

He said those forms of discrimination are clearly prohibited by state and federal law, but source of income is not.

Gehl credits the town and Hull with advancing fair housing, including with a 2005 amendment to the law.

“He has always looked upon fair housing as a way to welcome people to the town and to keep people in the town,” Gehl said.

Hull joined the Community Development Department in 1988 after seeing a want ad in the newspaper. There were 89 people who applied, he said. He worked his way up to become director, a job that allows him to not only improve the community roads, sidewalks and sewers through federal community development block grants, but also foster fair housing.

Trying to reach a young, urban audience, Hull does things like advertise the town’s first-time homebuyers and housing renovation programs on WWWS-AM, WBLK-FM and WBUF-Jack FM. The budget, he said, is “extremely” minimal.

But it’s one way of getting the word out.

“So we can let residents know in the city we have programs out here,” Hull said. “That’s worked very well. They stop on the South Park bus, get an application and take bus back to the city.”

And some move to Hamburg.

Gehl said every community that receives federal support of any kind has to certify it will administer programs in a way that furthers fair housing.

“Too many fall short,” Gehl said. “Hamburg never has. I think they’re a real sterling example of what is possible.”

To Hull, it’s just the fair thing to do. He worries about people who have minimum wage jobs, and he worries about seniors who want to downsize but can’t find housing that is affordable.

“I don’t like the unfairness of things happening,” he said. “We’re here to help people; that’s our job.”