Policy Solutions for COVID-19 Response and Recovery in Buffalo-Niagara

Date: May 6, 2020

Unprecedented times call for unprecedented measures.

On Thursday, April 30, Partnership for the Public Good and the Cornell ILR Buffalo Co-Lab, in collaboration with ANCHOR, hosted a Buffalo Commons Community Conversation on policy solutions for COVID-19 response and recovery. The discussion covered local, state, and national policies that have already been adopted in response to the COVID-19 emergency and those that are still urgently needed now and as we look toward the future. Topics that were covered included housing, civic participation and government transparency, water and food access, jails and justice, and the economy and workers.


With governments stretched thin in their efforts to prevent the spread of illness, meet residents’ immediate needs, and look toward a more sustainable future, community organizations and neighborhood leaders are proving key to COVID-19 response. This pandemic is not only a public health crisis, but a racial and economic one. It has exposed the clear and irrefutable reality that pre-existing inequities exacerbate the impacts of COVID-19 in low-income and communities of color—neighborhoods hardest hit by this crisis.

A return to the status quo will not address the obvious fragility of our systems. Instead, in this moment, we can adopt policies that will help build a new and more equitable society. During this community conversation, researchers and advocates offered their thoughts on policies to advance in the weeks ahead:

Housing. Healthy, safe, and affordable housing was already increasingly difficult to find in our region before the current crisis. In Buffalo, there were 8,530 eviction notices and 4,383 eviction warrants in 2017, concentrated in low-income zipcodes. New York State issued a moratorium on evictions during the crisis, keeping all tenants in their rental homes through June 20. For homeowners, there is limited mortgage relief to date. A new bill (HR 6515) sponsored by Rep Ilhan Omar would cancel rent and mortgage from April 1 until the emergency ends, and provide additional funding support – including for small landlords who rely on rental income as their livelihood. At the state and/or municipal level, Just Cause Eviction and Clean Hands Eviction laws are priority policy recommendations from PPG’s 2020 Evictions Report. During the conversation, PUSH Buffalo shared their work on rent relief (cancelling April and May rent for its own low-income tenants), rental assistance (providing cash aid to tenants in need across the region), and direct landlord negotiations (leveraging their rental assistance to ask landlords to forgive 20% of rent due).

Water. In the City of Buffalo, there were 17,690 shut-offs for nonpayment between January 2015 and April 2019—making it likely that many households were living with their water shut off when the crisis began. In mid-March, the City of Buffalo and Buffalo Water took an important early step in suspending water shut-offs for nonpayment and has turned on over 100 customers at no cost. The City of Buffalo also stopped the accrual of interest and late fees on overdue water bills until further notice. Pointing to the US Water Alliance’s first principle for COVID recovery – to “ensure water is reliable and affordable for all” – PPG called for a) long-term suspension of shut-offs for nonpayment; b) more equitable financing and rate structures for low-income individuals; c) increased transparency to understand how many homes are still without water; and d) flexible, accessible plumbing repair funds for individuals to fix structural problems that are preventing water restoration in their homes.

Food. In Buffalo Niagara, 12% of households (56,000) lack access to a supermarket – they live more than 0.4 miles from one and lack access to a vehicle. A new coalition, Seeding Resilience, is building a community food system to address the food inequities in our region exacerbated by COVID-19 across growing, distributing, processing, and transporting food – all rooted in community engagement. Neighborhood-based organizations agree that the demand for food aid has not slowed down yet, and many have pivoted their work to support these basic needs, such as the Fruit Belt Community Land Trust. Noting that food chain jobs make up 7 of the 10 lowest paid jobs in the country, the Seeding Resilience coalition is calling for policies at local, state, and national levels that guarantee worker health and safety like paid sick and family leave, access to PPE, and safe working conditions. Farmworkers should be paid hourly and not at a piece-rate basis.

Jails and Justice. The local jail population has decreased by about 80 individuals since March, with now 520 individuals in both Erie County jail facilities. This number is around half of what the jail population was in late 2018, before bail reform began to lower the pre-trial population. Arrests are down and fewer people are entering jail, but there are still changes needed such as release or furlough (temporary release) for elderly, pregnant or at-risk individuals who remain in jail, and those with little time left on their sentences. Erie County jails, given their low capacity, could do more to ensure individuals are social distancing and ensure access to basic hygiene necessities in our jails. Read PPG’s list of recommendations to safely release more individuals and protect community health.

Economy and Workers. Approximately 25% of WNY workers are without jobs and filing for unemployment insurance. Policy changes to date have waived the waiting period for filing for unemployment insurance and extended the period of coverage; support is also supplemented for eligible workers through federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) with an additional $600 per week until July 31. New York mandated Paid Sick Leave which includes job protections and/or 5 to 14 days of leave for workers dealing with health issues themselves or with family members. The CARES Act supported the Small Business Administration in providing disaster assistance and payroll protection through low-interest long-term loans.

Though the City of Buffalo is facing the prospect of a crisis-induced budget deficit of ~$35 million, New York State is looking to cut funding to local municipalities; advocacy is needed to prevent those cuts. Long term expanded paid sick leave/family leave, elimination of sick leave carve outs and a push for freelance labor protections are still needed, especially since certain groups of workers are classified as independent contractors and do not have any of these protections. The community conversation highlighted the arts as a particularly impacted sector of the economy. Locally, Arts Services Initiative surveyed 178 artists and arts organizations who reported a current total loss of revenue/income at $2,532,576 and a total anticipated loss of income at $4,459,319.  The WNY Arts Emergency Relief Fund aims to help address these impacts.

Civic Participation and Government Transparency. Adjusting to social distancing requirements, the Buffalo Common Council, the Buffalo School Board, and the Erie County Legislature are all meeting virtually. For the primary and general elections, applications for absentee ballots are being sent to voters. With the hopes of increasing participation, the deadline to complete the Census has been extended. Stronger Open Meeting Laws are still needed, as well as considerations for long-term virtual participation in Council and Legislature meetings after reopening, as many residents will still be avoiding large in-person gatherings for some time.

Access the powerpoint used during the presentation hereWatch a recording of the conversation here. Track PPG’s regularly updated COVID-19 Policy Responses and Resources webpage here.

Learn more or join advocacy efforts on these issues by connecting with any of the individuals below:

Housing – sarah@ppgbuffalo.org
Water – andrea@ppgbuffalo.org
Food – jgilber@buffalo.edu
Jails and Justice – colleen@ppgbuffalo.org
Economy and Workers – ks844@cornell.edu
Arts and Cultural – Zainab@ppgbuffalo.org
Civics / Government – orlando@ppgbuffalo.org

This post was written by Kristen Ksiazek, Research and Collaboration Specialist at Cornell ILR Buffalo Co-Lab and Partnership for the Public Good.