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HUD: 'Troubled' Buffalo housing authority ranks among nation's worst

The Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority ranks among the worst public housing agencies in the nation, according to a new federal assessment.

The BMHA failed its most recent U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development review with an overall score of 55, according to HUD documents.

As a result, the agency is now listed as "troubled," HUD's lowest assessment category.

The troubled ranking – held by less than 3 percent of 1,800 housing authorities HUD scored during a one-year period – means BMHA will face new requirements, and introduces the possibility of HUD appointing a receiver to run the housing authority if measurable improvements aren't made within two years.

The poor assessment reflects a steady deterioration of the agency's apartment buildings, its yearslong failure to rent all of its units despite a waiting list and its recent reliance on reserve funds to balance its budget, according to the HUD reports and BMHA officials.

Gillian Brown, who was named BMHA executive director in October, said he's optimistic Buffalo's public housing agency will successfully work itself out of the bottom ranking, and will do so well within the time frame outlined by HUD.

"This is not as heavy a lift as it sounds," Brown said. "It requires focus on what needs to be done."

The BMHA has already begun taking steps to upgrade its buildings and increase occupancy, which will also improve the agency's finances, Brown said.

"What this amounts to is a failure of planning," Brown said of some of the BMHA's problems. "We need better planning."

This latest HUD assessment, while completed at the end of 2018 and released in February, is based on the authority's performance in the fiscal year that ended in June 2017, when Dawn Sanders-Garrett was BMHA's executive director.

The 55 score for 2017 is lower than the 61 score the BMHA received in 2016 and its 67 score in 2015.

The 2015 and 2016 scores placed the BMHA in HUD's "substandard" agency category. By dropping below a score of 60, Buffalo is now considered "troubled."

The performance review is the latest in a string of bad news involving BMHA over the past year.

The Buffalo News last year published a series of stories about questionable purchasing practices at the financially strapped housing authority, including:

HUD followed up with a scathing audit confirming The Buffalo News reports, and requiring the BMHA reform its purchasing practices.

HUD also in recent years issued a series of critical reports on the condition of individual BMHA housing developments, with Jasper Parrish, Shaffer Village and Kenfield Homes flunking with scores in the 50s, and Langfield Homes flunking with a 46.

Years of putting off maintenance have caught up with the agency, according to Brown, who said he's working to address the problems by restructuring the housing authority's maintenance operation, hiring more workers and using capital funds and public-private financing to upgrade the agency's aging buildings.

The BMHA recently repaired, and will soon replace, elevators at the 10-story LB Johnson Apartments off Humboldt Parkway, where residents had complained that one of their two elevators wasn't working at all, and the other worked sporadically. Some work has been done to fix pitted roads at the Kenfield/Langfield development, and more is planned, Brown said. An exterior maintenance project is currently ongoing at the Stuyvesant Homes, where bricks last month fell from a section of the Elmwood Avenue building.

The BMHA is also planning a substantial overhaul at Shaffer Village off Ontario Street, and is preparing for an overall physical assessment of the agency's 26 developments as the first step in applying for a capital spending loan program that the BMHA hadn't previously taken advantage of, Brown said.

Sitting Friday in their Shaffer Village apartment, Jacqueline and Gregory Taylor talked about the frequent flooding in their basement, sewer backups, inadequate electrical wiring and absence of a hot-water hookup for their washing machine.

The couple agreed their development would benefit from a major overhaul, but warned the BMHA must do a better job maintaining its properties.

"It's the maintenance. They need to keep the maintenance up," Gregory Taylor said.

Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority tenant Gregory Taylor shows clothes, a flat-screen TV and other items in his Shaffer Village basement that he has to throw out because he said the basement floods about twice a month. When other tenants get their drains clogged, the sewer backs up into their basement and no one from the BMHA comes to clean it up, he said. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

The BMHA executive director also discussed his plans to increase the agency's occupancy rate, which it has struggled with for years.

HUD expects housing authorities to have at least 95 percent of their apartments full at all times. BMHA's occupancy – excluding the more than 400 vacant and shuttered apartments at the Commodore Perry complex and A.D. Price Courts – is at 92 percent. That represent 250 apartments that are available, but not rented at any given time.

Including the shuttered Commodore Perry and A.D. Price apartments in the calculations brings the BMHA's vacancy rate down to 82 percent. Brown said he'll be petitioning HUD to remove those properties from the calculations because the units there are not livable and cannot be rented.

The BMHA has a waiting list, Brown said, but the agency has failed to efficiently get new tenants certified to move in after vacated apartments are cleaned up and repaired.

A series of steps is planned for coming weeks to rectify that, he said.

The vacant units are a financial problem for the BMHA.

"Every vacancy ready to be rented is leaving money on the table," Brown said.

Full occupancy at the BMHA – excluding the shuttered Perry and A.D. Price Courts units – would generate an additional $2 million annually in rents and federal subsidies, The News calculated.

Brown noted that the BMHA's current budget anticipated the agency relying on some of its reserves in the first half of this fiscal year, but as of now, that has not been necessary.

The use of reserves was one of the items cited in the HUD performance report.

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