At Common Council proceedings earlier this week, the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority was authorized to transfer ownership of AD Price Courts, a historically significant public housing complex that has long suffered from deliberate disinvestment and mismanagement.
The complex, now entirely vacant, contains 270 residential units. The land transfer is an endorsement of Assistant Director Modesto Candelario’s controversial privatization strategy. Candelario’s boss, Executive Director Dawn Sanders-Garrett, is said to be “hands-off” manager who defers to his judgement on operations and policy issues.
Candelario’s advocacy of the privatization of a number of public housing developments, including Commodore Perry Projects, is a deeply controversial policy question. But the policy has been aggressively pursued without public input or consent — in a way that shields incumbent Councilmen from taking a yes or no vote on the privatization of public housing.
The authorization passed by unanimous consent, exposing each Councilman to damaging liabilities in their upcoming reelection efforts — particularly for Councilmen Darius Pridgen, who is already seen as too close to the business community in some quarters, and David Franczyk, the deeply unpopular 20 year incumbent whose Fillmore district is home to five major developments.
“Modesto is only concerned about his net worth,” says Commissioner Joe Mascia. “His condescending and dismissive attitude towards tenants illustrates deep character flaws.”
In recent years, at Candelario’s behest, the authority has been partnering with private investors to redevelop housing complexes that were intentionally neglected, by taking equity ownership positions in the properties. BMHA sells private developers a portion of the ownership, in exchange for a cut of the rents. It gives the investor a property that doesn’t have property tax liabilities, and whose operating and maintenance expenses are shared with a non-profit entity ostensibly controlled by BMHA officers.
The plan has been to spin off properties into non-profit entities, whose board members are familiar BMHA commissioners and senior staff. These non-profits are then to operate these complexes quasi-independently of the government, backed by an equity investor to whom they deliver a return.
In essence, the staff of BMHA is planning to spin off massive publicly owned properties into private investment vehicles, under the guise of a non-profit entity, that they themselves manage and control, for the purpose of delivering a return to their private investor, a firm called Northstar.
The governance model lacks transparency, oversight, and accountability. Residents worry that the strategy will lead to unregulated rent increases, neighborhood gentrification, and residential displacement. Some wonder aloud whether the transactions constitute public corruption.
When the AD Price Courts complex was first built, it was the first African American public housing development in the country, and a prominent local historian — who is influential in the Eastside’s political power structure — has called for its preservation.
Some activists are saying that the property could be a powerful symbol in the region’s social justice movement — at a time when many Eastside residents are already organizing around education, housing, and employment issues.