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BMHA must honor its mission

It is entirely legal for tenants making $100,000 per year to be living in public housing, but that doesn’t make it right, especially when others are starved for decent housing.

A Buffalo News report this week revealed that 173 of its households earn more than the income ceiling for properties operated by the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority. The BMHA has no plans to evict them, but instead said it will raise their rents to a market rate, which is permissible under a new federal policy.

That might make sense as a business decision, but it disregards BMHA’s core mission. Some 3,300 individuals are on its waiting list, hoping to land a spot in BMHA housing. How, then, is it possible to allow tenants with significantly higher-incomes to occupy those apartments?

New HUD guidelines also give housing authorities the option of evicting over-income individuals. BMHA Executive Director Gillian Brown told The News the agency would never do that.

“I’m not going to punish people for bettering their circumstances,” Brown said.

We agree. Tenants who meet the income guidelines when they move into public housing should not be discouraged from making money, but a balance is needed.

There are legitimate arguments to be made for having some higher-earning tenants living in proximity to those on the lower end of the scale. The high earners can serve as models of success to inspire others, and may be better qualified to demand services to keep buildings in good shape.

As a landlord, the BMHA also takes in considerably more money if it collects market-rate rents from a significant number of tenants, giving the agency little incentive to clear the way for more low-income renters. But a public agency should first be accountable to its public mission.

The BMHA has the ability to set a more reasonable policy than just asking over-income tenants to pay more. HUD’s current income limits are $43,050 annually for a family of one, up to $81,200 for a family of eight. Under the agency’s new rules, households that for two consecutive years have earnings at least 20% higher than the median area income in Erie County would no longer be eligible for subsidies. Households crossing that line could face eviction or be charged market-rate rents.

That’s a good starting point, but it would affect just 29 households of the 173 in BMHA housing that The News identified as over-income, and Brown said the agency would not evict tenants based on that. Another BMHA executive said the agency is aiming to draft a new policy by July. It needs to have teeth.

A new policy could start by devising an income rule that affects more than 17% of their over-income households. And if a household’s earnings reach into six figures for two years, the residents should certainly be required to find other housing. Going forward, tenants should be required to agree to such a rule when they first move in. Otherwise, people in need are left stranged on the waiting list.

It’s rare to complain about rent being too low, but that’s the reality in subsidized housing occupied by six-figure earners. The BMHA needs to correct this imbalance.

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