Buffalo News: "The Editorial Board: Buffalo needs some practical solutions to an affordable housing crisis that grows desperate"

Date: March 25, 2023

News Editorial Board | March 25, 2023

Enough with the studies and the reports. It’s time for action.

Buffalo has an affordable housing crisis that’s been building since well before the pandemic and is now at near-catastrophic proportions.

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. That’s a spike of more than 26%, but even the 2019 number is beyond the reach of many in Buffalo, where persistently low household incomes – the median household income of renters in the city is $28,105 – cause nearly 50% to spend more than 35% of their incomes on rent. That number can go up to 70% in some neighborhoods.

Buffalo’s political leaders know about this crisis and various efforts to address it have been made over the years. An affordable housing task force was named by the city’s Common Council in 2016, but it never met. A report on tenant protections was commissioned by the same body in 2021, but it was never disseminated. On Feb. 7 of this year, the Council appointed a new 10-member Affordable Housing Task Force, charged with vetting and recommending policies to address the city’s increasingly steep rents.

That’s all fine, but, as city officials and the members of this task force are well aware, those who lack housing can’t wait for another report to be released. They need relief now. As long-term strategies are formulated, there are already policies that can help those in need of housing or in danger of losing the housing they have. Those strategies should be pursued, both in Buffalo and in Albany, depending on what kind of legislation is needed.

Progressive think tank Partnership for the Public Good polled dozens of other nonprofits in the region last fall and found that better eviction policies were among their top ten priorities for 2023. The PPG specifically recommends passing a local Good Cause eviction law, which requires a landlord to have a good reason to require a tenant to move, like nonpayment of rent or illegal activities, and limits evictions due to unreasonable rent increases. Good Cause is also being proposed as part of the New York state budget, though from the Legislature, not Gov. Kathy Hochul. Similar protections exist in other states.

Even if Good Cause does not become reality, there are other ideas, such as an Office of the Tenant Advocate, proposed by community organization PUSH BUffalo, which would audit eviction proceedings and manage a $1 million rent fund for struggling tenants.
However the components are tweaked, Buffalo has long needed some sort of oversight that protects both tenants and landlords, who, after all, do not benefit from their tenants’ inability to pay them.

In the meantime, long-term strategies should also be honed and implemented. Buffalo has plenty of vacant lots that can be developed into housing and long-vacant properties that can be rehabbed. Looking at the vast urban prairies of parts of East Buffalo, it’s easy to see where renovated structures and equally spiffed-up green spaces could create neighborhoods out of emptiness.

There is subsidized public housing for low-income and senior tenants. Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority owns and operates more than 4,000 such units. Much of this housing badly needs updating and the best of it has never offered such amenities as terraces, gardens or anything else that might provide dignity and a better quality of life.

A final, very interesting suggestion came from a panel on Buffalo’s housing crisis convened at the University at Buffalo on March 15. One of the three panelists, Rahwa Ghirmatzion, former executive director of PUSH, suggested that just as a community benefits agreement was required for the new Bills stadium, other big development projects that require public subsidy should also have to contribute to the public good. Part of that contribution could include new affordable housing units.

There are many excellent strategies out there to address this problem. As the 2021 Common Council report would have revealed, had it been disseminated, cities similar to Buffalo offer best practices worth looking at.

But panels, task forces and reports don’t mean much without the work on the ground. Buffalo needs action on housing now.

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