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Another Voice: Buffalo is facing a crisis in affordable housing

By Aaron Bartley

The surge of development in Buffalo presents new opportunities, but also new challenges. The word is out about ​the city’s charming neighborhoods and vibrant waterfront, and we’re attracting newcomers at a rate not seen since World War II.  One consequence is a crisis that would have been unimaginable a few years ago:  higher housing costs in every part of town and the advent of the $2,000 per month rent for a two-bedroom apartment.

Buffalo can learn from other cities that have experienced rising housing costs. Average Oakland rents now exceed $2,700, making it tough even for firefighters and police to live in the city where they work. High housing costs in Washington, D.C., have reduced the population share of African-Americans from 70 percent to about 45 percent since 1980, and the displacement continues.

Gentrification exacerbates disparities by devouring higher proportions of already-stretched family budgets for housing costs and, over time, moving vulnerable populations ​further from job centers, transportation networks and services.

So, what can be done? Here’s the outline of an approach that would give Buffalo a chance to avoid the housing displacement wreaking havoc in many cities:

• Develop a comprehensive plan with input from residents. The city has begun this process, hiring a consultant to guide it. This planning will be most impactful if residents from all neighborhoods are engaged in a frank conversation about the housing challenges they’re facing. A good plan would set a clear target for the number of affordable housing units needed.

• Expand and streamline programs that help low-income homeowners stay in their homes. Roofs, insulation and foundation repair are key to making homes livable for those struggling to keep up with the bills.

• Expand the moratorium on the sale of city-owned land until clear targets for affordability are set and a method of achieving them is established. Fruit Belt residents in partnership with Council President Darius Pridgen established such a moratorium for the area east of the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus.

• Seize the moment to build affordable housing now. We have a window this year with the ample funding for affordable housing provided by the state budget. Accessing the available funds will require creative partnerships between City Hall, experienced affordable housing developers and community-based organizations looking to gain capacity.

• Implement inclusionary zoning. The luxury loft buildings going up around town are heavily subsidized by taxpayers, with little public benefit. A strong inclusionary zoning policy that would require 30 percent of housing units to be affordable on developments over 12 units is under consideration in the Common Council.

Preserving Buffalo as a place for all people is not the work of any one organization or agency. It will take careful coordination between city and state officials, community organizations, residents, affordable housing developers and workforce development groups.

Aaron Bartley is the co-founder of PUSH Buffalo.

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