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Another Voice: Give public housing residents an ownership stake

By Kenneth E. Moore

The June 3 article in The News on public housing in Buffalo revealed conditions that are unacceptable in any city, in particular a city where elected officials rely on the votes of minorities.

The article makes clear that the primary problem is maintenance, which is not surprising, for that is the case in most below-grade projects around the country.

The Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority states that resolving the problem would require $300 million in new funding, presumably money they don't have. But is that just a way of saying that nothing much can be done. Certainly there are other ways of attending to maintenance failures other than awarding construction contracts.

One looks at Lockport and Niagara Falls and sees that they were awarded HUD scores almost double the score of Langfield Homes in Buffalo. Why is that? Neither of these Niagara County cities is wealthier than Buffalo. Perhaps it has to do with something other than funding.

A general conclusion supported by abundant evidence is that maintenance costs are reduced when there is pride in one's residence and the community. Pride is the reason middle class residents can be seen spending endless hours mowing and pruning, even on football weekends. Is pride non-existent in disadvantaged communities? Of course not.

In my experience, the surest way to resolve the problem of maintenance – something I have seen again and again – is to move residents from cramped and badly maintained apartments to town houses that they are allowed to purchase. Once the residence is in private hands the problem of maintenance disappears, for the property is not only maintained but improved.

But how can this happen when residents are unemployed and on public assistance? Easy. Allow them to make loan payments from welfare checks. Once they see capital accumulation, for some the first time ever, they become like suburban mowers and pruners – preoccupied with enhancing their jewel.

This is but one example, and it seems there's little chance of it happening in Buffalo, but it demonstrates a principle. Pride in residence reduces maintenance costs. Are there affordable ways of enhancing pride? For sure, but to discover what they are means first of all paying attention, for example, meeting with residents regularly, listening to their ideas and seeking their cooperation.

The best ideas may come from the community itself. The goal of those paid to lead has to be more than responding bureaucratically to the worst problems of neglect. The less well-off among us are ever proud of the obstacles they have overcome, and they can become proud of the place where they live. When that happens the major problem of the present –
maintenance – can be resolved.

Kenneth E. Moore, of Lewiston, is a retired professor who taught urban studies at the University of Notre Dame for 30 years.

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