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Editorial: Unless Housing Authority shapes up, HUD should act

The Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority is on the clock. If it doesn’t show marked improvement within the next two years, the federal government can appoint a receiver to run the agency. And it should.

A new assessment from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development rated the BMHA as among the worst in the country. HUD qualifies the agency as “troubled,” a distinction held by less than 3 percent of 1,800 housing authorities evaluated.

One caveat: The HUD report was released in February but is based on the BMHA’s performance in the fiscal year ending in June 2017, when Dawn Sanders-Garrett was executive director. That doesn’t change the fact that many of the residents of BMHA properties continue to live in substandard housing overseen by an agency that’s been plagued by inefficiency or outright incompetence.

The pressure being applied by HUD sends the message that changes need to happen fast.

Gillian Brown, the BMHA executive director since last October, told The News he is confident the agency will improve enough within HUD’s time frame to improve its ranking.

“This is not as heavy a lift as it sounds,” Brown said. We hope that’s true but if it is, why didn’t it happen years ago?

The HUD assessment focused on the deterioration of BMHA properties, its use of reserve funds to balance its budget and a longtime failure to rent all of its apartment units despite having a waiting list.

Brown says the agency is taking steps to upgrade its buildings and increase occupancy.

“We need better planning,” he says.

BMHA properties have been plagued by tenant complaints about lack of heat, an unreliable water supply and maintenance calls that go unanswered.

In an article published last summer, The News found that the BMHA sometimes paid more for items it purchased, such as rock salt and garbage bins, than did other local governments. Another News article uncovered evidence of BHMA contracting work being steered to a firm with ties to an agency supervisor.

Brown points to funding cuts in the past few years that have reduced the agency’s staffing and caused maintenance to be deferred. He also insists progress is being made. The director says he is restructuring the maintenance operation, hiring more workers and finding funds to upgrade the agency’s aging buildings.

Mayor Byron W. Brown acknowledged problems at the agency when he requested the resignations of three of his five appointees to the BMHA’s Board of Commissioners in 2017. The mayor nominated four new members, including Chairman David Rodriguez. Keeping close tabs on the agency should rank high on the mayor’s list of priorities.

Gillian Brown served twice as interim director of the agency before getting the full-time post. After his appointment last fall, Rodriguez praised his leadership potential and offered some advice.

“Put yourself in the tenant’s shoes,” Rodriguez said. “What do you expect when you go home? Do you expect that your grass is going to be cut or you cut it yourself? Do you expect that if you’re a tenant, that your plumbing will be fixed if you need it? ... There are all quality-of-life small issues, but if they are allowed to pile on, then they become bigger issues.”

Many of the issues were spelled out plainly in HUD’s assessment. It’s up to Brown and the BMHA leadership to make things right or find themselves under the thumb of a federal receiver. If that happens, it will be long overdue.

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