Local housing advocates and experts have responded to presentations of the City of Buffalo’s draft Housing Opportunity Strategy that were made to various groups this week.

“We are happy to see inclusionary zoning included as one of the recommendations,” said Aaron Bartley, executive director of PUSH Buffalo, which has been campaigning for an inclusionary zoning law. “We look forward to working with the City to quickly pass and implement the best possible law.”

Longtime west side resident Maxine Murphy said, “inclusionary zoning is a necessity to alleviate the suffering of renters in Buffalo. New developments should be required to have affordable rents in at least 30 percent of their units.”

Franchelle Parker, executive director of Open Buffalo, was pleased that community land trusts are prioritized.  “It is great to see the consultants recommending that the City transfer some of its vacant lots in the Fruit Belt to a land trust.  Residents there have recently incorporated the City’s first community land trust, FB Community Land Trust, and they are eager to work with the City on that.”

Community land trusts are a widely recognized best practice for preserving affordable housing, and there are now over 220 community land trusts around the nation.

To offer the City additional tools, a local think tank, the Partnership for the Public Good, today released a report titled “Affordable Housing Strategies for the City ofBuffalo.”  The Partnership’s executive director, Sam Magavern, explained that its report should be viewed as a complement to the Housing Opportunity Strategy.

“The draft Opportunity Strategy is excellent,” Magavern said.  “But housing is a big topic, and we wanted to offer some additional data and tools for the City to use.  We also put more emphasis on how fast rents are rising in the City and how unaffordable they are becoming, especially when combined with high utility bills.”

Michael Riegel, president of Belmont Housing Resources of WNY, said, ““Over the course of the last year, Section 8 voucher-holders have found it increasingly difficult to access decent affordable housing due primarily to rapidly rising rents.”

The Partnership’s report notes that according to Rent Jungle, a survey of roughly 80% of on-line rental listings in the city, whereas in 2011 the average rent advertised for a two-bedroom apartment in the city ranged between $678 (March) and $940 (November), in 2017 the average rent for a two-bedroom has ranged between $1,226 (January) and $1,355 (April).  Among metro areas nationwide, Buffalo experienced the seventh largest increase in rental affordability burden between 2015 and 2016. Homelessness in Erie County rose 10 percent from 2015 to 2016 – a strong indicator of the devastating impact of unaffordable housing on vulnerable families.

The PPG report also states that in Erie County energy costs represent an astonishing 76.6% of household income for those who are at or below 50% of the federal poverty level.  According to Magavern, that is one of the reasons that energy efficiency is such an important piece of the puzzle in Buffalo.

In addition to tools listed in the Opportunity Strategy, the Partnership’s report recommends changes to the City’s tax foreclosure policies, more repair funds for low income homeowners, eviction protections for tenants, tax deferrals for owners in fast-gentrifying neighborhoods, and a green and healthy neighborhood revitalization program.  It calls on the City to be much more aggressive in transferring the abandoned houses it owns to non-profit developers and responsible homeowners through its Homestead program.

“It costs the City an average of $20,000 to demolish a home.  Why not give that home to a non-profit developer with a grant of $15,000 instead of demolishing it,” asked Magavern.  “The City saves $5,000 and gains another unit of affordable housing.”

Teresa Bianchi, executive director of Habitat for Humanity Buffalo said, “”I was pleased to see that the Partnership’s report identifies the City’s Homestead program as an important tool for non-profit housing developers to increase their build rates. Habitat for Humanity of Buffalo has put over 300 houses back onto the city tax rolls and helped over 300 families own their own home in part because we bought affordable properties through the Homestead program. This year, however, our build rate has been cut in half because we can’t afford to purchase rehabs or lots any longer.”

DeAnna Eason, executive director of Housing Opportunities Made Equal (HOME), said of the Opportunity Strategy, ““We waited a long time for this and are pleased that it includes Inclusionary Zoning.  We were disappointed that housing choice voucher mobility programs and fair housing enforcement were not included in the City’s report, but this report, in combination with the PPG’s Affordable Housing Strategies for the City of Buffalo, is definitely a step in the right direction.”

Also highlighted in the PPG report are several state and county initiatives that the City could advocate for, including a state bill for a Home Stability Support initiative to combat homelessness with new rental assistance vouchers.

Dale Zuchlewski, executive director of the Homeless Alliance of WNY, said, “the Home Stability Support initiative sponsored by Assemblymember Andrew Hevesi is a potential game changer for those experiencing or about to become homeless. Most affordable housing options are developer driven. but this initiative gives the renter more options to choose where they would like to live and better quality housing for their families.”

India Walton, a Fruit Belt resident and member of the Community First Alliance, said, “Affordable housing and investment in community resources will allow me and my children access to affordable activates and basic amenities we otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford. I spend 40 percent of my income on housing. On housing that doesn’t have access to grocery stores, transit, or community centers. How disgusting is that? 40 percent that I could be saving towards my children’s education. 40 percent that I could be saving to someday own my own home. My children deserve the same access to education, the same access to healthy food, the same access to transportation, the same access to jobs, the same access to fun activities as any child in this City. But if we can’t afford to live in the Fruit Belt, where will we move? If we move to the suburbs my children won’t have access to the Say Yes program anymore.  We won’t be a part of the community who shares the same values as us.”

The PPG report is available at www.ppgbuffalo.org.