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The Buffalo News’ recent investigations into City Hall’s housing policies raised some very important issues.

How much is too much to subsidize the construction of homes in the city?

Should developers receive these subsidies? Or should homeowners receive these subsidies?

Should private developers be relied upon for the development of these homes or should non-profits?

These are important questions that City Hall should spend more time thinking about as they move forward with projects like Sycamore Village. However these types of questions do not begin to challenge the ideal upon which this kind of housing policy rests: homeownership.

There are obviously many benefits to homeownership and for many people it is probably ideal.

Unfortunately homeownership is not a very affordable option for many people in Buffalo.

Homeownership requires homeowners to have a very steady and relatively high level of income. As the UB Regional Institute’s new report Playing an Insecure Hand: Low-Wage Workers in the New Economy points out, an increasingly large number of people in Buffalo are only finding inconsistent low-wage work. This kind of an income prevents many people from getting past the high upfront costs associated with buying a home. Further, even if one is able to get a mortgage, the costs associated with maintaining a home can be high. Many home owners are thus at risk of falling into foreclosure.

The Buffalo News’ report bears this out:

“Of the 431 subsidized homes that resold among the 1,500 [that have been subsidized by the City], more than half — 231 — were foreclosed upon, with most — 184 — involving the original subsidized owner. These foreclosures basically wiped out the $4 million in publicly funded subsidies the 184 foreclosed owners received.”

Obviously homeownership is a risky proposition at best for many people in the city.

Even renting is unaffordable for most people! According to the US Census Bureau’s American FactFinder, 55.8% of renters in Buffalo spend over 30% of their household income on rent. HUD states that the “generally accepted definition of affordability is for a household to pay no more than 30 percent of its annual income on housing”.

Additionally, according to the Homeless Alliance’s statistics, roughly 2000 people cannot even afford rent on any given night and as a result are homeless.

Bearing all this in mind, should homeownership be the main focus of our housing policy?

We believe that it is time for our community to broaden its outlook on the housing situation in Buffalo beyond homeownership and begin to focus housing policy on making housing affordable to all people.

PS: For a great discussion of the development of federal housing policy and issues with its emphasis on homeownership as a guiding principle see Thomas Sugrue’s article Why the New American Real Estate Dream is Renting.

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“Mr. Donovan, tear down this house. And this one. And this one. And that one over there. That’s the message federal Housing Secretary Shaun Donovan should take with him from his visit to Buffalo last week.”

So begins a recent Buffalo News editorial on HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan’s visit to Buffalo. Demolishing vacant housing seems to be the preferred policy for resolving Buffalo’s housing crisis.

However, vacant housing isn’t Buffalo’s only housing crisis. Nearly 2,000 individuals and families in Buffalo cannot afford housing and as a result are currently homeless. This number does not reflect the many more that may be doubled and tripled up with friends and family or who are otherwise precariously housed and may be in danger of losing their homes.

It is a paradoxical situation: increasing housing vacancy rates along with increasing numbers of homeless individuals. How did Buffalo get here?

This graph from the Western Regional Advocacy Project’s report Without Housing tells part of the story:

Beginning with the Reagan Administration and continuing to the present, HUD’s subsidized housing budget has been slashed yearly. Thousands of units of affordable housing have been lost.

These cuts correspond to the dramatic increase in the number of homeless individuals in the 1980’s and the steady increases in homelessness since then.

Mr. Donovan must hear about both sides of Buffalo’s housing crisis: the vacancy as well as the homelessness.

He must hear that plans to revitalize or restore Buffalo’s housing stock must make the development and preservation of affordable housing a central priority. Otherwise this twisted paradox of a housing crisis will continue to hinder any attempt to revitalize this city.

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2008 poverty data MR (2)

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David Robinson over at Buffalo News wrote this article a couple weeks back about the thousands of jobs that the region has lost in the last couple  months and the thousands more that will be lost in the coming months.  Keep in mind that the loss of a job was one of the most common reasons cited for homelessness in Buffalo.
01/25/09 07:06 AM
BUFFALO’S BUSINESS

So much for all the talk about the Buffalo Niagara region being a good place to ride out the recession.

While it took about nine months longer to hit here than it did across the country, thanks to our stable but subdued housing market, the steep decline we’ve weathered since September proves that when the national economy turns sour, there’s no place to hide.

“It took a long time for the recession to arrive in Western New York,” says John Slenker, the state Labor Department’s regional economist in Buffalo.

And arrive it has. The region in December endured its biggest monthly job loss since March 2002, when Western New York still was mired in the last recession. The December job losses were so severe — 7,600 positions vanished from December 2007 to December 2008 — that the region now has fewer jobs than it’s had in any December since 1995.

Even Slenker, whose job it is to put together the monthly employment data for the region, was surprised by the severity of the December decline. “This was a larger downturn than I was expecting,” he says.

But this is an economy that’s being wracked by fear, in addition to the fallout from the housing bubble, the vice-like credit crunch and the overall economic malaise it’s creating.

Consumers aren’t buying, fearful that their jobs might be in jeopardy or their pay might be cut, if it hasn’t been already. Companies aren’t investing as much and looking to save money wherever they can.

Executives are thinking a lot like Timothy

T. Tevens, the president and chief executive officer at Columbus McKinnon Corp. The Amherst material handling equipment maker’s sales have started to weaken, with revenues slipping by 5 percent, excluding an October acquisition. New-order bookings slowed at a “mid-to-high single-digit” pace, he said.

So Columbus McKinnon has been cutting back, trimming 200 jobs in the final three months of 2008. And Tevens is poised to pull the trigger on even deeper cuts this quarter if the slowdown continues. “That’s what I consider to be an initial cut,” he says.

Another 200 jobs could be slashed. Hiring and wages could be frozen. The company match on worker’s 401(k) plans could be in jeopardy. Health benefits could be reduced. Several plants are being looked at for consolidation.

It’s like that all over. “Most businesses are looking at their sales and they’re also looking at the general economy,” Slenker says. “They’re saying ‘Where can we tighten our belt? Even if we’re doing well, we’re going to cut back because we don’t know what the future holds.’ ”

That’s why Slenker expects the local job losses to worsen in January.

Canisius College professors George Palumbo and Mark Zaporowski expect the cost-cutting to spread to local governments, which so far have been reluctant to scale back even as the region’s population keeps dropping.

That could mean reduced services, lower pay for government workers and possibly fewer agencies operating in the region, the professors say in a recent report on the local economy. And they continue to stress that economic development efforts need to focus on initiatives that make the region more productive and competitive, such as by reducing energy, regulatory and transportation costs.

Still, Slenker says workers shouldn’t give up hope if they lose their jobs. More than 20 percent of the companies surveyed by the Labor Department last month said they hired new workers in December, often to replace employees who left their jobs.

“There are still going to be opportunities,” Slenker says. “You’ve just got to look harder.”

drobinson@buffnews.com

http://www.buffalonews.com/145/story/559521.html

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Charity Vogel of the Buffalo News wrote this excellent piece about the choices and sacrifices people living in poverty need to make.



Rose Cannon goes to the supermarket on her $14. But she doesn’t get far.

“I get a gallon of milk, a loaf of bread and some eggs,” she said. “That’s it. Nothing. You get nothing for $14.”

If you’ve looked at a grocery shelf lately, you know that’s true. Prices seem to increase weekly, even on basics like bread and milk. The cart full of stuff that used to cost $100 now costs – well, maybe it’s better not to dwell on that.

That’s the impact you’re feeling.

Now imagine for a minute what it’s like to deal with those prices when you’re poor.

Cannon knows all too well. She’s 54, hampered by poor health, and past her working days due to a stroke she suffered in 1991 and a back injury that led to painful arthritis.

Now, Cannon finds herself dwelling in a strange country called poverty.

In Buffalo, that makes her one of multitudes. Nearly one in three adults in the city is poor; almost 43 percent of children live in poor homes. It’s one of our most debilitating problems, and the most intractable.
Cannon knows all that, but it doesn’t make her daily life any easier.

Take her food stamps: $14 worth.

That’s her monthly allotment from the county. The reason she gets so little is because she owns a few things the government deems not mandatory for someone in her situation. Like a dog and cat, cable TV and the older Chevy Impala she drives.

Cannon, a longtime community volunteer who ran for Common Council in 1999, receives $660 a month in disability income. That, combined with the money her learning-disabled daughter, Rose, gets, goes to cover the mortgage on their Lovejoy home, utilities, debt payments, gas, the car and insurance, food and incidentals.

But Cannon pays a price for her choices.

When she petitioned for more food assistance, a state hearing determined that the amount she gets is fair. Her choices on voluntary spending, the state ruled, shouldn’t factor in.

So it came down to this: The cat or the frozen chicken dinners. The TV or the yogurt. The car or the coffee.
These are the kinds of tough choices people living in poverty in our city grapple with every day. It’s not something that would enter the minds of most of us who aren’t poor – that by holding onto your car keys, you can’t eat roast beef this month.

The poor of our city are real people. They’re not symbols, and they’re not statistics. They live and breathe and manage their own checkbooks and schedules. They lead complicated lives, just like the rest of us; and they have both fine points and flaws.

Like it or not, they are individuals, making individual decisions.

Cannon’s made hers. As she enters the later phase of a life pocked by hardship, she doesn’t want to lose the few remaining things that make it livable. The pets she dotes on. The car she sees as a necessity, since she can’t walk far or fast.

“You have to survive,” said Cannon, her green eyes softening, “no matter what.”

I don’t know whether Cannon should get more than $14 in food stamps, although it seems a pitifully small sum.

But I do know that if we want to understand – and maybe solve – the problem of poverty in our city, we need to see clearly how the system works for those who live in it.

And so: Which would you choose? The cable or the cottage cheese?

Poverty strips a lot away from those who endure it. It’s hard to blame someone who wants to hang onto the final few shreds of what makes her a little bit like the rest of us, still.

cvogel@buffnews.com

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invite

The Homeless Alliance will be having its Annual Luncheon and Awards Ceremony on Thursday, December 11th at noon at Pearl St. Grill and Brewery in Downtown Buffalo. The cost is $25/person.

Our guest speaker will be Margaret Sullivan, Editor-in-Chief of the Buffalo News.

A copy of our e-vite is below.  Please respond by December 3rd.

2008 Annual Luncheon Invite (pdf)

The Homeless Alliance each year recognizes an exceptional individual  and an organization who have shown dedicating and committment to the cause of ending homelessness in WNY with the Killian Vetter Individual Acheivement Award and the Monsignor Henry Gugino Organizational Award. If you would like to nominate an individual or organization for either of these awards, please fill out the below form and e-mail it to decicco [at] wnyhomeless [dot] org.

2008 Annual Luncheon Award Nominatino Form (pdf)

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Philip Mangano, Executive Director of the US Interagency Council on Homelessness, came to Buffalo on Tuesday to give a keynote speech at the Ending Homelessness symposium sponsored by the WNY Coalition for the Homeless and the Homeless Alliance. The Buffalo News reports behind the jump. (more…)

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