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Editorial: Investigate BMHA for execrable conditions

When will the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority step up? It has a new board and will – before long, surely – have a new executive director. What else does it need before finally acting on the stomach-turning conditions at some of its properties?

Maybe a push from Washington will help. Following Sunday’s News story on the BMHA’s lowest-ranking development, Langfield Homes, Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, has asked the acting inspector general of the Department of Housing and Urban Development to investigate the “chronic mismanagement” of the authority.

In addition to Langfield Homes, Higgins noted the “disgusting and unsafe” conditions at the Commodore Perry Homes. There, he observed, tenants live adjacent to buildings that are “disused, improperly sealed, and have become a haven for rats and a colony of feral cats.”

It’s been going on for years. Residents of many Erie County public housing properties have been living in conditions that would make most people nauseous. On a federal inspection scale of 0-100, the Langfield Homes are ranked at 46, worst in the county. The Perry Homes are not much better, at 52.

The comparison to Niagara County is startling. Of 24 properties in Erie County, 25 percent of them – six – are rated below 60. In Niagara County, meanwhile, the lowest-rated of nine properties gets a comparatively lofty 78. Does anyone think something magical is going on to the north that it can’t be duplicated here?

It’s not that Erie County lacks highly rated public housing installations. Thirteen – just over half – are rated at 80 or higher and nine of them are at 90 or above. Some credit is due there.

But those successes do nothing to excuse execrable conditions at the worst properties. In those, human beings are asked to live with vermin and amid the stench of broken sewer systems. If BMHA’s management is horrified by such an environment, it has cleverly hid the revulsion.

The best that can be said is that things are changing at the administrative level. The BMHA’s former executive director, Dawn E. Sanders-Garrett, resigned in March, though with a generous separation agreement. Last summer, Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown replaced four members of the authority’s board.

At the same time, Brown secured the volunteer advice of two experts: Gary M. Crosby, a former Buffalo city schools chief financial officer and former president of First Niagara Bank; and Michael Clarke, a BMHA executive director in the early 1990s who has headed up a local low-income housing investment organization for more than 20 years. Their insights could be valuable.

None of it has translated into substantial improvements yet and, frankly, it probably couldn’t have in so short a period. But the time for tolerance has long passed.

Buffalo is reviving, and it can’t leave whole populations behind. What is more, federal taxpayers are paying to support these properties. They have a right to expect competent management and acceptable living conditions.

That’s the administrative rationale for Higgins to ask HUD to investigate. The other is that human beings are being asked to live in ways that make decent people blanch. It can’t go on.

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