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Editorial: BMHA needs a new executive director

It was far too long in coming and the timing may be as suspect as one of Mayor Byron W. Brown’s election challengers claims it to be, but there is nothing to do but cheer Brown’s decision to revamp the board of the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority.

Now the board must act and, contrary to initial reports, it needs also to replace Executive Director Dawn Sanders-Garrett. This needs to be a new beginning for this troubled, incompetent agency and that can’t happen with the same leadership.

Brown announced the board changes last week, and he appears to have made solid choices. They are Rishawn T. Sonubi, an architect and deputy commissioner for the city’s Department of Public Works; David J. State, the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority attorney; Nona B. Watson, executive director of the Buffalo Urban Renewal Agency; and, filling a vacant position, David Rodriguez, a former city and BMHA attorney who is now the housing director for Hispanics United. Rodriguez is believed likely to become the new board’s chairman.

Beyond the two tenant-elected members, that leaves only Pastor Alan Core as a carryover member. Core, a mayoral appointee who grew up in public housing, is not being replaced.

In addition, in a creative move, the insightful Gary Crosby will volunteer as an adviser to the BMHA. Most recently, Crosby was president of First Niagara Bank, but before that he was the chief financial officer for Buffalo Public Schools. With his talents at the new board’s disposal, it is possible that the authority will start putting its resources to better use.

That funds have been poorly used shows up in the condition of some of the housing. That leadership has been lacking is documented in the failure to adopt strategies to begin improving the properties and, with that, the lives of underserved tenants.

The BMHA’s terrible reputation is well deserved. It has hundreds of rundown and vacant apartments at the Commodore Perry development. Vacant, dilapidated units have fomented blight in the neighborhood around the A.D. Price Courts. The Marine Drive apartments are deteriorated and declining. Yet, demand for low-income housing is on the rise in Buffalo, with more than 10,000 families on waiting lists.

That’s an equation that adds up to trouble.

This is, at least in part, a leadership question. While Sanders-Garrett says most of the problems stem from inadequate federal funding, the fact is that she spends a lot of time away from Buffalo, frequently traveling out of state for public housing conferences.

She says the knowledge she gains benefits the agency, but where are those benefits showing up? If they don’t improve the quality of housing and decrease the length of waiting lists, of how much value can they be?

There can be little doubt that many factors are at work in the poor performance of the BMHA, and to lay it all at the feet of Sanders-Garrett would surely be unfair. But there lies the problem.

Facing challenges that are both complex and intractable, the authority requires leadership that is knowledgable, adept and strategic. Whatever strengths Sanders-Garrett may bring to this $120,000-a-year job, they are insufficient to the task.

She has been working under an expired contract for several years, giving the new board the ability to decide whether to retain her services. Although Brown inexplicably said he expects the board to keep her on, it’s the wrong decision.

The value of naming a new board is to change the direction of the authority. That’s not possible without changing the leadership there. Both clients and supporters of the BMHA – and that includes anyone who pays taxes – have reason to hope that the board understands its duty and then does it.

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