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Higgins says BMHA qualifies for $150 million – if it applied for it

Before the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority asks the federal government for more money, the local agency needs to take advantage of millions of dollars – as much as $150 million – it already qualifies for but hasn't sought out, says Rep. Brian Higgins.

The BMHA could borrow as much as $50 million for capital improvements under one federal program and could leverage an additional $100 million or so under another program available to housing authorities, the Buffalo Democrat said.

"The authority cannot credibly ask ... for more resources if it is not using the resources which have already been made available to the absolute fullest extent possible," Higgins wrote to BMHA executive director Gillian Brown.

Brown challenged the $150 million figure Higgins cited, but agreed with Higgins' premise that the BMHA needs to do a better job taking advantage of available financing programs.

Since taking over as head of the BMHA last October, he's been working to increase BMHA funding through two programs Higgins mentioned in his Dec. 14 letter, Brown said.

One program the BMHA has not used at all, and the other was used on a limited basis, according to Brown.

The program the BMHA hasn't participated in allows housing authorities to borrow money for capital improvements using future capital budget funds to pay off the loan, Brown said.

While Higgins said the BMHA could borrow as much as $50 million under U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development regulations, Brown said he wants to start with a more conservative approach, noting that the money must be repaid.

"We want to do a test run and borrow $5 or $10 million," Brown said.

Rep. Brian Higgins. (Mark Mulville/News file photo)

The money would likely be used to upgrade elevators and kitchens in the agency's senior high-rise buildings, he said.

Brown said he also is working to increase the BMHA's capacity to leverage more private and public construction funds under HUD's Rental Assistance Demonstration, or RAD, program.

The BMHA used the program last year when it spent $15 million renovating 87 apartments in the Frederick Douglass Towers.

Based on approvals the BMHA received from HUD in 2014, the Buffalo agency is authorized to leverage another $100 million through the RAD program, Higgins said.

Brown said the BMHA is likely to use the program to renovate Shaffer Village in Riverside. The project doesn't yet have a price tag, but will be a major expense, according to Brown.

Brown said he doesn't know why the BMHA didn't take advantage of the capital fund borrowing program under his predecessor, Dawn Sanders-Garrett, who served as executive director for a decade before resigning last March. Sanders-Garrett could not be reached to comment.

But Brown said the BMHA likely didn't do more with the public-private RAD program because of the BMHA's limited staffing.

Brown said he's working to free up his development staff from day-to-day BMHA financial operations so more time is available for capital construction programs such as RAD.

"We did not have sufficient staff to get more aggressive," Brown said.

Higgins wrote to Brown as a follow-up to the congressman's meeting with Council President Darius G. Pridgen last month, when Pridgen asked Higgins to help secure more funding for the BMHA.

Pridgen says $1 billion is needed to fix BMHA properties

Higgins said he'll advocate for more BMHA funding, but also said inadequate funding isn't the sole reason for the housing authority's run-down buildings. The agency, he said, has a history of poor management.

In his letter to Brown, Higgins also repeated a past suggestion that the BMHA sell some of the shuttered apartments it owns in the Commodore Perry development to private developers. The sale could bring in another $10 million or so, while removing blight and providing new housing, Higgins said.

The BMHA executive director again rejected that idea. "The congressman is saying:  Do what we think raises the most money – without regard to stakeholders," Brown said, referring to residents at Perry and surrounding neighborhoods, as well as city development officials.

"I cannot do it. I think it's wrong," Brown said. "It has to be done in concert with the city and other stakeholders."

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