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Editorial: Don't waste $1 billion at the BMHA

The problems plaguing the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority run deep. The old saying, “not enough money in the world,” applies.

So, when Council President Darius G. Pridgen suggested that $1 billion may be needed to renovate the Housing Authority properties, and that a study should be conducted to determine the figure, anyone familiar with the long-standing issues could only sigh with frustration.

Spending $1 billion to renovate aged and deteriorating buildings while the authority remains mired in a legacy of incompetence and corruption is a nonstarter. For those who have forgotten the BMHA’s record of failure and neglect, think of the Commodore Perry housing development where officials over the summer cleaned up vermin-infested heaps of trash. And that’s just one of several examples.

It’s not that money can’t make a difference. The billion-dollar solution has been implemented in other areas, and with some success – think, the Buffalo Billion and the city schools renovation project. But money alone won’t solve the chronic problems afflicting the BMHA and its poorly served residents. Even if that kind of spending was appropriate, $1 billion could buy a lot of brand new single-family and town homes which also could waste away over the years without addressing the system’s failures.

The News has reported on decrepit conditions at many of the BMHA properties, including the Perry apartments and the Langfield Homes, the worst ranked in Erie County and in the bottom 3 percent of 374 inspections conducted statewide. Conditions are appalling – worse than any human being should have to endure.

An effort to restructure and re-engineer the authority seems to be underway. The seven-member board, five of whose members are appointed by the mayor, has been revamped. A new executive director who has spent half his career at the Housing Authority has officially taken charge. He should be given time to prove himself. But he hasn’t done that yet.

None of this prevents Pridgen from requesting the money from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. He wrote Sens. Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, as well as Rep. Brian Higgins asking for help in obtaining additional federal funding for renovations and other improvements at Housing Authority properties.

His letter did not mention any specific dollar figure but said that some of the housing complexes were built in the 1940s and 1950s and have not had any major renovations over the years.

The News noted the 2013 study which estimated it would cost $300 million to upgrade the BMHA’s 27 housing complexes. A separate report cited the cost of overhauling just the Commodore Perry homes and the surrounding neighborhood at $200 million.

Pridgen is a compassionate man. “It is our elected responsibility to protect the most vulnerable in our communities,” he said. His plea came straight from the heart. What is more, he is absolutely right. Elected leaders have a responsibility to fix this mess. Residents of the authority’s buildings need and deserve decent housing, and steps must be taken to improve the conditions there.

But the public can’t be asked to spend that kind of money until it knows that the projects are sensible and that the authority is run by professionals who will manage the money and the properties with focus and diligence. Although the authority is under new administration, the public has yet to see proof of consistent competence, even if it has reason to be hopeful.

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