WASHINGTON – The Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority allowed the vacant Commodore Perry Homes to deteriorate to the point where they became a public health hazard, a place where a child could drown in a flooded stairwell or where trespassers could become injured in ramshackle apartments contaminated with lead and asbestos.
Those were among the devastating conclusions of a federal audit released this week.
"The authority’s Commodore Perry Homes development has been largely vacant with substantial structural damage and unsafe conditions since at least 2013," said the audit issued by the Office of the Inspector General at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. "The 25 buildings covering seven blocks continue to deteriorate and present urgent ongoing health and safety concerns for the surrounding residents and local community, including the potential for increased crime."
What's more, BHMA "did not adequately address urgent, ongoing health and safety issues with the vacant development," the auditors concluded.
The sprawling complex of 80-year-old garden apartments, just off the I-190's Louisiana Street exit, has been vacant for the past two years.
And the 40-page audit, rife with photos of open windows, ransacked apartments and stairwells filled with trash and water, noted in a footnote one potential reason for the BMHA's neglect: the site of the Perry projects has long been seen as the most likely downtown location for a new Buffalo Bills stadium.
BMHA "expressed concerns with the opinions of stakeholders, which would include city, county and state officials, and said that it sometimes delayed making decisions about the future of the development due to those opinions and the ongoing stadium discussions," auditors noted.
The audit resulted from a request from Rep. Brian Higgins, a Buffalo Democrat who, after reading a Buffalo News story about poor conditions in the city's public housing, drove to the Perry site in 2018 to photograph the blight himself.
Asked for his reaction to the audit, Higgins said: "Well, I think it confirms everything that we observed four years ago. I encourage the BMHA to take decisive action."
And that's just what the Buffalo public housing agency is already doing, said Gillian D. Brown, its executive director. BHMA employees are inspecting the Perry property twice a week to check on doors and windows – and to board up those where the plywood has been torn away.
"Almost as soon as we board certain doors and windows, they get ripped off," Brown noted.
In addition, the agency now plans to fill in the project's exterior stairwells and crawl spaces with concrete.
All of those measures will be included in a safety plan that the housing agency will submit to the local HUD office this weekend.
Asked if the BMHA would be taking those safety measure if not for the audit, Brown said: "That's hard to say."
At the same time, Brown appeared to minimize the public safety hazard, saying: "We don't have any record of anyone being injured on this site."
The auditors, however, indicated that the risk of injury was great. Noting that the Perry site was near two occupied public housing developments – including an adjacent playground and splash pad – they wrote: "The flooded stairwells and crawlspaces presented a drowning risk, and the unsecured windows and doors created a risk of injury for children and trespassers who may enter the building."
"In addition, due to the age of the buildings, there were lead and asbestos concerns, including ground contamination," the auditors added.
Given the seriousness of those problems, the auditors recommended that the local HUD office "determine whether the buildings represent an imminent threat to public safety from physical deterioration." HUD officials should also determine whether BMHA should address those concerns immediately, before a full environmental review can be completed.
The auditors' work extended over several years, back to 2019, when seven families still lived in the Perry units.
"A May 2019 site visit to the seven occupied dwelling units found peeling and blistering ceilings and walls, a broken bedroom door, a stove that did not function, toilets that did not work properly, possible mold, and complaints from residents regarding bedbugs and roaches," auditors wrote.
BMHA was still repainting units and paying heating bills for vacant units as late as May 2019, the audit said, but the agency moved the last tenants out of those debilitated properties in September of that year.
The auditors also criticized the local housing officials for delaying redevelopment of the site, a move that Brown, the BHMA executive director, attributed to its possible use as a stadium site. That potential appears to be slipping away, though, because the Bills' ownership has said it prefers a cheaper site adjacent to the team's current stadium in Orchard Park.
In a letter to the HUD inspector general, though, Brown noted that "various groups in Buffalo" continue to push for the stadium to be built on the Perry site.
"As unrealistic as we know this scenario is, we believe it would have been irresponsible for us to move forward with redevelopment plans before we had a clearer sense of what, if any, steps would be taken with regard to this site," Brown wrote.
In an interview, Brown noted that Pennrose LLC, a Pennsylvania developer, proposes to redevelop the Perry site into private homes, as well as modern public housing. The current units would be demolished and replaced under that plan.
Saying he understands that the existing Perry property is deeply troubled, Brown said: "The only important message I want to get out is that I'm not I'm not deflecting responsibility."