Buffalo News: "New housing task force will tackle Buffalo's 'affordability crisis.' Will this one make a difference?"

Date: February 7, 2023

Caitlin Dewey | February 7, 2023

What do you get when you put five advocates, two landlords, two lawyers and a housing official in a room together?

A solution to the affordable housing crisis, hopes the Buffalo Common Council.

On Tuesday, the council appointed 10 representatives to a new Affordable Housing Task Force, charged with vetting and recommending policies to address the city’s skyrocketing rents. Between late 2019 and late 2022, the median monthly rent in Buffalo rose from roughly $970 to $1,230, according to the real estate site Zillow – a spike of more than 26%.

The task force's recommendations are not binding. But its members will work directly with a city attorney and fair housing officer, Council President Darius Pridgen said, to find immediate “action steps.”

Such proposals might involve capping rent increases, establishing an emergency rent assistance program or limiting the reasons landlords can evict tenants, among other measures. The Common Council has previously solicited research on these types of laws but never adopted them.
 “This is just the first step,” said Micaela Shapiro-Shellaby, a task force member and the director of organizing at PUSH Buffalo, a housing and economic justice organization. “So we're hoping that all the folks coming to the table have the same objectives and move quickly to address the housing crisis.”

Pridgen acknowledged the city has tried – and repeatedly failed – to tackle housing affordability in the past. But prior policy proposals have not always attracted public support or accounted for legal limits on the city’s power, he said.

The Common Council first approved an affordable housing task force in 2016, noting “an unbearable rise in the costs of living” for low-income residents. That task force never met.

Five years later, the Common Council approved a resolution asking council staff to research tenant protections in other cities and propose policies for Buffalo to consider. A six-page report, delivered to Pridgen’s office in late December 2021, solicited public feedback and recommended more than a dozen policies used by cities including Rochester and Baltimore. The report was not disseminated.

Housing advocacy organizations and overwhelmed tenants have also prepared multiple policy reports and lobbied council members to champion them, pointing to the unabated rise of both evictions and rental prices. Even before the pandemic, 45% of Buffalo-area households spent 35% or more of their incomes on rent, a common threshold for determining whether costs are too burdensome for tenants.

Today, Erie County issues more eviction warrants than any New York State county but Kings, and 46% of Buffalo renters qualify as “rent-burdened.”

A fall poll of dozens of local advocacy and nonprofit organizations, conducted by the left-leaning think tank Partnership for the Public Good, named eviction limits among the top policy issues for the region.

“We appreciate the Council president’s inclusion of PPG on the task force,” said Sarah Wooton, the think tank’s director of research and a task force member. But, she added, “we already know what other cities are doing to protect tenants and what's possible in Buffalo. We need our Common Council to take action and adopt specific tenant protections as law.”

In addition to Wooton and Shapiro-Shellaby, the task force will include representatives from Housing Opportunities Made Equal, the Buffalo Urban League, the Western New York Property Owners Coalition and city government, as well as a tenant advocate, a small landlord and the director of a University at Buffalo civil rights law clinic. The original resolution establishing the task force called for more landlord and business representation. 

The group is expected to meet for the first time this month and release its recommendations by the end of 2023, Pridgen said.

But while housing advocates and tenants say they’re optimistic, they’re also waiting for action. 

“I understand there’s only a certain amount of control the city can have,” said Aidan Connolly, a Parkside resident who submitted comments for the 2021 Common Council staff report – and never heard back. “There are things that can be done, though. And it feels like they keep overlooking them.”

Read this article on The Buffalo News' website, here.