Rep. Brian Higgins encountered anger and frustration from some Commodore Perry public housing tenants when he held a press conference there Monday to tout his idea of renovating rows of empty, rundown apartments into low- and moderate-income units – and perhaps some market-rate housing, as well.
Disgruntled neighbors said they fear they will be priced out of their own community under his plan and that Higgins didn't take an interest in Commodore Perry until Canalside – less than a mile away – started developing. And, they added, what he's proposing is not what the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority – which owns the complex – promised them.
When Higgins began taking questions, they shouted over him to express their opposition, wouldn't let him finish statements and didn't give him much of a chance to address their concerns. Other residents interviewed by The Buffalo News after Higgins' press conference voiced similar objections to his plan.
Commodore Perry, off of Louisiana Street just north of South Park Avenue, consist of three sets of apartment complexes: six high-rise buildings with 326 apartments, nearly all occupied; rowhouse apartments, of which a majority of 84 are occupied; and the flat-roofed apartments of which the remaining 330 that were not demolished are almost all vacant.
Higgins wants to rehab 172 units in the 12 empty, flat-roofed buildings between Louisiana and Hamburg streets. He is asking the Housing Authority to seek a request for proposals, a strategy similar to when developers were asked to submit proposals for reusing the Women and Children's Hospital buildings that soon will close on Bryant Street.
But residents say they prefer the BMHA's plan for the flat-roofed apartment buildings, even though they haven't heard anything more about it in about a decade.
Based on a consultant's report, the BMHA – which owns the complex – concluded that renovating the vacant apartments would be too expensive and instead is looking for state or federal funds to knock them down and to help rebuild new, replacement, low-income housing as part of a larger, mixed-income neighborhood.
"BMHA promised us ... we would have first choice to come back," said Dorothy Flakes, president of the Commodore Perry tenant council, who once lived in one of the vacant apartments Higgins wants to rehab. Flakes – who now lives in one of Perry's high-rise buildings – was one of several residents who attended Higgins' press conference.
"About 10 to 15 years ago, they promised us then that once they got torn down, they would be rebuilt, and we could move into them. What he's talking about is for people who don't live here," Flakes said of Higgins. "We down here in the Perry feel like we are the forgotten people. They're always coming in promising us this and promising us that, and nothing ever gets done. It's not fair to the tenants."
At one point during the press conference, Linda Abernathy asked Higgins how low-income residents fit into his proposal, to which he explained that some of the housing he was suggesting would be for low- and moderate-income people.
"I don't believe you," Abernathy told him flatly.
Abernathy also lives in a Perry tower and was moved from an apartment in the flat-top building about five years ago.
"We can't afford this housing. They're joking," she said of Higgins' idea.
"The promise (BMHA) gave us was we were going to get relocated somewhere else, and we would have first choice to come back," Abernathy said. "Yeah, they're empty but there was a promise behind it – that they would get torn down and make them low-income housing."
[Gallery: Life in the Perry Street apartments]
Jamilah Salaamhas lived in one of the high-rises for about six years but had lived in one of the flat-top buildings. She, too, would like to see the buildings torn down and replacement housing built.
"Through my eyes, I think it would be cheaper – and to keep the promises that were already made" by the BMHA, she said. "I might be low-income, but I'm not about to be stepped on."
A Perry resident for nearly 20 years, Fatima HaSidi never lived in the flat-top buildings but remembers when they were all pretty much occupied. She didn't attend Higgins' press conference, but she heard about what he is thinking of doing. She prefers the original idea of razing the buildings and rebuilding. And like Flakes, HaSidi feels like Perry tenants are the forgotten people.
"Well, according to what Mrs. Sanders Garrett has said, most of the apartments are uninhabitable. That's why they're being torn down," HaSidi said, referring to BMHA Executive Director Dawn Sanders Garrett.
"From what I have surmised, Higgins wants to build housing at market rate, which would virtually knock out most of the low-income people, those living on a fixed income such as myself and anyone who could not afford to live in market rate. It's not right. Give us a break," HaSidi said. "We have been the lost community for years. Nothing happens down here.
"The only thing that you see happening is when there are events going on downtown. You see cars come in and you see cars leave like a bat out of hell when they go out. It's disgusting. It's disgraceful. It's not fair to the community that lives here. We are the lost community. We have been for years."
Perry tenant John Irving also would like to see the buildings razed and rebuilt, and he wondered of the people who already live in the Perry complex, which of them could afford to live in the renovated apartments Higgins is proposing.
"They're going to want at least $1,500 a month. Everybody down here is on a fixed income," Irving said. "As it stands right at this moment, they're not for nobody that lives here. You're saying affordable housing, that's definitely not affordable housing for people who live here now. Come on, now."
Otis Levering, who lives in one of the Perry high-rise buildings summed up his opposition to Higgins' plans in a few words.
"This ain't for us," he said. "What he wants to do is for the rich folks. They want to build for folks who got money."
Higgins has no formal authority over the BMHA, and the congressman had not discussed his idea for the Perry apartments with the authority.
After hearing the opposition during his press conference Q&A, Higgins eventually walked away from the podium. Later, he said he understood the residents' discontent.
"People are frustrated and passionate, and rightly so," he said. "An ambitious plan to remove severe blight is going to spark an emotional response, and that's both good and healthy."
"That's why I'm calling on the BMHA to solicit proposals from nonprofits and developers for plans to replace 12 vacant and boarded buildings with new affordable and market-rate housing," Higgins added. "The only risk is in doing nothing. We should demand better because the people in the Perry neighborhood deserve better."