Parties settle historic housing desegregation case

by Scott W. Gehl
Executive Director
Housing Opportunities Made Equal
Buffalo, New York

On August 13, 1996 attorneys for the Greater Upstate Law Project (GULP), Neighborhood Legal Services and the WNY Law Center met with legal representatives of the federal government, the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority, the City of Buffalo, and the Town of Amherst to settle a 1989 class action suit which had charged segregation of federally assisted housing programs. The settlement will bring over $130 million in new resources into the Buffalo area to benefit low-income minority residents.

Seven years ago, Housing Opportunities Made Equal had been involved in the planning of this suit but - after considerable reflection and debate - chose to pursue an alternative course because of concerns that the breadth of the suit would delay a remedy for public housing tenants. While HOME's efforts ultimately yielded marginal gains for public housing tenants in the BMHA Voluntary Compliance Agreement, attorneys for the plaintiffs in Comer v. Cisneros won a victory of historic proportions for low-income residents of Buffalo and Erie County.

Through a combination of demolition and reconfiguration of existing units, the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority has agreed to remove a total of 502 units at Perry, A.D. Price and Lakeview. In their place will be 450 Section 8 subsidies and 50 new public housing units built in areas without concentrations of minority or poor residents.

BMHA and the city have also agreed to institute a pro-integrative tenant selection and placement plan, to undertake special redevelopment efforts at the Frederick Douglass Towers and around other developments, and to make efforts to involve public housing tenants in future city planning.

HUD has agreed to provide an additional 300 tenant-based subsidies for families who wish to move from predominantly minority developments or minority households whose placement is delayed by the pro-integrative admissions policies.

The settlement will also affect the way the agencies administering the federal Section 8 rental assistance program do business. Plaintiffs had alleged that policies of the Rental Assistance Corporation (which administers Buffalo's program) and Belmont Shelter Corporation (acting for suburban communities) had a discriminatory effect on minority applicants and participants.

The settlement does away with administrative barriers to Section 8 participation and allocates 800 rental subsidies for use by minority applicants who had been passed over because they did not qualify for a local residency preference.

Additionally, the consent decrees require HUD and the City of Buffalo to fund a metropolitan Community

Housing Center, which will provide both a centralized listing of affordable housing and offer help to low-income families who choose to move outside areas of poverty concentration

Even though the financially strapped City of Buffalo was among the defendants in the suit and has incurred certain financial obligations as a result of the settlement, at the August 22nd meeting of the Urban Renewal Agency Mayor Anthony M. Masiello welcomed the additional federal resources the settlement will bring into Buffalo. As the Buffalo News noted in an editorial the week before: "Housing opportunities for minorities and poor people are broadened, some public housing projects in Buffalo will get much-needed renovation, and several Buffalo neighborhoods should be helped."

"We're very hopeful that the Comer settlement will provide real opportunities to families who, up until now, have had limited housing choice," said GULP attorney Michael L. Hanley, an architect of the suit. "Whether it will all work depends, finally, on the continued commitment of the city, area housing agencies and the fair housing community."