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Archive for the ‘housing’ Category

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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Developer Mark Croce will be receiving a $1.35 million hand-out from New York State tax payers to turn a vacant downtown building into an “upscale boutique hotel at Franklin and West Huron streets.” Croce is “convinced there’s a market for an upscale boutique hotel that offers larger rooms with some unique amenities.”

This handout is coming in the form of a Restore NY grant which is intended to “stabilize neighborhoods and revitalize urban areas.”

Which neighborhood is being stabilized here?

Who will benefit from this kind of urban revitalization? The “upscale” market Croce is convinced is out there–we’ll say those households making more than $150,000/year–accounts for about 3% of households in Buffalo.

In other words, $1.35 million of public money will be used to provide a tiny part of the community with presidential suites, pent-houses, and “unique amenities.”

This is money that could be used to stabilize or revitalize the neighborhoods of the 30.3% of people living in poverty in Buffalo, still the third poorest city in the country. This money could even be used to provide basic housing to the hundreds of individuals and families that are homeless on any given day in Buffalo.

Instead this public money will be used to help a wealthy developer provide upscale hotel suites for wealthy travelers and community members.

The County is also looking to tear down buildings in downtown Buffalo. In an effort to avoid being held responsible to Constitutional standards for jails and prisons, the county wants to build a new multimillion dollar county lockup downtown.

Hotels for the wealthy, expensive jails for the rest of us.

Is this how the people of Buffalo and Erie County want their money spent?

Does this benefit the whole or even very much of the community?

Or does it continue to subsidize wealthy developers and their clients while a third of the city lives in poverty?

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GreenJobsForum-6

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According to a recent Buffalo News article the New York Power Authority is working on a deal with Yahoo!, the Internet giant, to bring them into WNY.  The speculated deal would include giving Yahoo! power discounts totaling $101.2 million over the next 15 years.  The plant Yahoo! is planning to build would create 125 jobs, which means that New York Power Authority would be spending $809,940 over the course of the contract for every job created.

A couple of quotes from the article about the potential deal:

  • Referring to the amount being spent on each new job, “‘It’s exceptionally high, even for high-tech,’ said Greg LeRoy, a national expert on economic development subsidy programs.”
  • “‘There are a few other deals we’ve seen over the years in that neighborhood, but it’s stratospheric. It doesn’t have much company,’ said LeRoy, executive director of Good Jobs First, a nonprofit research and advocacy group based in Washington, D.C.”
  • “‘On a number basis,’ said Power Authority President Richard Kessel, ‘this doesn’t look like the greatest deal in the world, but we can’t look at the numbers alone.'”

Power Authority President Richard Kessel is correct; we can’t just look at the numbers.  We also have to look at what kinds of jobs these are and where they will be located. As far as location, Yahoo! is looking at building its plant in rural areas like Cambria, Lockport or Pembroke.  What kinds of jobs will these be?  An interviewee in the article described these jobs as “high-tech”.  This means they are sure to require at least a bachelor’s degree or some training.

A quick look at the NFTA’s website shows no public transportation to Cambria or Pembroke from Buffalo and no morning bus runs to Lockport from Buffalo. There also does not appear to be any scholarship or training programs for interested but unqualified workers associated with the deal. There will basically be no way for a low-income individual living in Buffalo to get a job at this potential plant if they do not have all the required qualifications and even if they do have the right qualifications, there will be no way for them to get to the job if they do not own a car, which is impossible for most low-income people.

If the deal goes through, this publicly subsidized plant will not create living wage jobs for the 1/3 of Buffalo that lives in poverty.  This is not to say that communities like Cambria, Lockport, and Pembroke don’t need these jobs but could that $101.2 million do more good for more people in our community if it were given to a company that agreed to locate close to the areas that need the jobs most?  To companies that will train some of the city’s thousands of unemployed workers?

If the city, county, or state ever hopes to end poverty and homelessness in Buffalo, it must make poverty its most important focus.  In deals like the one being hashed out with Yahoo!, our administrators and elected officials must ask themselves if huge deals like these will create good jobs close to the communities that need the jobs most.  Looking at the Poverty Challenge Budget it becomes clear that one of the major things that keeps people in poverty is their low-income.  Many of the jobs that are available in the city are service sector jobs that pay very little, are often part-time, and offer few if any benefits.  If the majority of jobs in a community pay poverty-level wages, then the majority of people in that community will stay in poverty.

Another aspect of the Poverty Challenge Budget that is sure to keep people in poverty is transportation.  Using private transportation (or owning a car) will automatically blow your budget and put you into debt.  But most of the decent paying jobs are outside the city, in places where there is little or no viable public transportation.  The job that may help you get out of poverty is then out of reach becasue you can’t afford the transportation to get there and you have to settle for the minimum wage jobs in your neighborhood (which are harder than ever to find becasue of the current recession).

You could go down the list of items and expenses in the Poverty Challenge Budget starting with the low-income (due to the lack of jobs or the existence of only low paying jobs in your community), the high cost of rent/utilities, the cost of transportation, the cost of cell phones (very necessary for prospective employers to call you back) and see all the expenses that keep 1/3 of Buffalo in poverty.  If our public officials ignore the poverty level budget and don’t address the need for living wage jobs, affordable rent, affordable transportation, etc. then thousands of people in Buffalo will continue to be impoverished.

The Yahoo! deal is another decision being made by public officials that does not have ending poverty as a  primary concern or even as any concern at all.  Deals that will create the kinds of jobs that will allow people to get out of poverty must be the ones we consider first if we have any desire to end poverty in Buffalo.  The $101.2 million deal with Yahoo! is a deal that is being created without any concern for the thousands of impoverished people in our community. (more…)

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That may seem like a ridiculous question.  Part of the reason I came to Buffalo was because I thought it was probably the most affordable place to live in the state*.  But the Center for Housing Policy‘s recently released report entitled Paycheck to Paycheck serves to remind us that for many working people, owning a home or even renting a 1BR apartment in Buffalo is unaffordable.

The report compares the wages of 60 occupations with the wages necessary to afford the cost of an average home ($100,000 including all associated costs) or the Fair Market Rent for a one-bedroom or two-bedroom apartment in different states and metropolitan areas.  Housing  is usually considered affordable if it amounts to 30% of your budget.  For example, CHP calculates the income needed for a one-bedroom apartment by multiplying the Fair Market Rent for a one bedroom apartment by 3, which would roughly give you the income needed for that month to afford the apartment.  That monthly number is then multiplied by 12 to get the yearly income necessray.

The report found that while the wage necessary to afford a home decreased (much of that having to do with declining home prices) the wages for many occupations, construction-related occupations in particular, still are not high enough to afford a home and in severe cases a two-bedroom apartment.  Fair Market Rents continued to increase in most areas, which is very troubling given the big increases in unemployment and that renting is usually the more affordable option for low-income people.

The homeownerhsip and rental information for Buffalo, a town that most people consider a very cheap place to live, is also very troubling.  Fair Market Rent for a two-bedroom apartment increased from $704 in 2008 to $723 in 2009, a 2.7% increase.  Even more disturbing are the number of service sector wages that are not high enough to afford a one or two bedroom apartment, let alone a home.

Consider these graphs which show the income needed to afford a home, one bedroom, or two bedroom apartment in Buffalo along with the incomes of a selection of service sector occupations (which represents a large portion of the employment available in Buffalo):

Annual Income Needed to Afford a Home

homeownership 1

Other occupations that did not earh enough to afford a home included: hairdresser, home health aide, housekeeper, janitor, laundry worker, nursing aid, office clerk, packager, parking lot attendant, receptionist, retail salesperson, school bus driver, security guard, stock clerk, stock mover, telemarketer, and wait staff.

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James McKinney, a level 3 sex offender, is completing his prison term and needs a place to live.  A state supreme court justice was ready to send him to his mother’s home in North Tonawanda until he reconsidered and decided to send him to an apartment that houses homeless welfare clients.  He decided against sending the man to his mother’s home because “It’s the epitome of a family, suburban residential area. It’s not appropriate [for McKinney].”

Certainly this man poses a threat to whatever community he moves to.  The judge even found in his trial that this man “had a mental abnormality” but the judge “decided against committing him.”  Understandably, the judge feels it is inappropriate to allow McKinney to move back to his mother’s home.  But for this judge it is apparently more appropriate to send him to a city of Niagara Falls apartment that may be housing homeless families.  Every family, regardless of income, deserves to feel safe in the place that they live.  Just because a family lives in the suburbs and has a higher income does not mean that they should receive preferential treatment when it comes to the placement of sex offenders.

This is a very difficult and unfortunate situation.  But even so, the safety of all people regardless of income must be ensured.  Hopefully the judge will be able to work with the parole officers to find a more appropriate place for Mr. McKinney.

Beyond the safety of homeless people, this story also brings attention to how the criminal justice system deals with sex offenders like McKinney who are finishing up their sentences.

This is not just an isolated issue either.  Over at change.org’s End Homelessness blog, Shannon Moriarty is also talking about homeless sex offenders.  As Moriarty states at the end of her blog post, a more humane way of dealing with homeless sex offenders who are completing their sentences needs to be developed.

High-risk sex offender ordered to live in Falls building housing the homeless

By Thomas J. Prohaska
NEWS NIAGARA REPORTER

LOCKPORT — A sex offender regarded as likely to reoffend because of a “mental abnormality” will live in Niagara Falls, not in his mother’s North Tonawanda home, a judge ruled Wednesday.

(more…)

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