A Q&A with the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority's Dawn Sanders-Garrett
As federal funding for housing has dwindled, public housing authorities across the country have struggled to maintain buildings and manage their budgets while also providing clean, safe living spaces for residents.
The story is no different in Buffalo. Just as the New York City Housing Authority has been in the news for black mold in apartments and tenant complaints that go unaddressed for months, the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority was the subject of news stories this summer about similar issues in the state-owned Marine Drive complex. The agency is also dealing with a lagging occupancy rate, which has it under close watch by its main funder, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. BMHA’s executive director, Dawn Sanders-Garrett, sat down with City & State to discuss the federal funding cuts and what her organization can do to try to make things work on a scaled back budget.
The following is an edited transcript.
C&S: You’ve talked many times in recent years about the cuts to federal funding for housing authorities. How do such drastic cuts impact your agency?
DSG: We have a job to do, but we don’t have the resources to do it. The fullness of our mission is compromised when we don’t have the resources necessary to build or repair housing units. The operating subsidy and the capital improvement dollars are crucial to that taking place. In Buffalo we have a lot of physical properties. Yes, we have some housing choice vouchers or Section 8 residents, about 1,300 across the city of Buffalo. But we have a large amount of physical structures, and you can’t put Band-Aids on physical structures.
C&S: The biggest challenge for the BMHA right now appears to be its low occupancy rates, but so much of the authority’s portfolio is in severe disrepair. What can your organization do to increase occupancy and ensure compliance with HUD requirements?
DSG: Buffalo’s housing authority was the second established in New York state. That means that a good portion of our housing was built in the 1930s. The needs of people have changed over the 80-plus years that the authority has been in existence. Portions of Commodore Perry and A.D. Price Courts are going to need a significant amount of capital dollars in order to make them inhabitable so that we can put people in those units. A lot of the developments are all over 90 percent occupancy, but when you add two major ones that have a significant number of units that we can’t house people in, it drags the overall number for the authority down.
C&S: The appropriation for HUD will soon be announced. What have you been doing to advocate for a restoration to your funding?
DSG: The federal government has made no secret about the resources drying up. But even though the resources are limited, they still have a responsibility to provide housing for low- and moderate-income individuals or anyone who qualifies. That, in and of itself, is compromising our abilities and that is why we are undertaking redevelopment efforts. Any time we can rehab a property, any time we can go after tax credits and improve the overall property, any time we can use energy performance contracts to address the heating and energy related activities, we have done all those things.
C&S: HUD and the housing authorities it monitors and funds have been moving toward a model that brings in private developers and contractors to build, own and operate some of the developments. Do you see this as an appropriate shift?
DSG: Infusing private dollars in to try to deal with the housing crisis is the only way we’re going to get the capital needs addressed, which means that the housing authority has to compete with the private developers and everyone else for tax credits. The funding model by which public housing is funded has to change. The whole platform has to change and housing has to take a priority in the hearts and minds of the community, be it legislators, be it service providers, be it the community as a whole. The progress that this city is making is great. However, we cannot leave behind the low- and moderate-income individuals who so desperately need our housing.
C&S: It seems like there is always a new program out for housing authorities to go after money. There was HOPE IV, Choice Neighborhoods and now the Rental Assistance Demonstration Program. Does it feel like housing authority management spends too much time chasing this funding and not enough time working on in-house issues?
DSG: It has always been a natural part the housing authority’s executive director’s responsibility. Has it increased? Yes. Are there more requirements and fewer resources and people to do them? Yes. We’ve probably been having this conversation since we got here.