Katrinna Martin-Bordeaux, the President of Young Black Democrats of Western New York, is calling on Aaron Bartley, the Executive Director of People United for Sustainable Housing (PUSH), to “cease and desist his covert campaign to takeover over the Fruit Belt.”
She describes his organization’s revenue model as profiteering on poverty. She argues that his organization should first develop a self-sustaining revenue model on the West Side before he “attempts to use poor Black folks as a new marketing angle in the securing of federal funds.”
Martin-Bordeaux notes PUSH’s unabashed political activities in recent years, whose membership frequently organizes to back candidates, often using the group’s meetings, strategies, and branding to promote individuals aligned with party headquarters.
Martin-Bordeaux notes that could jeopardize PUSH’s 501c(3) tax exempt status.
The organization is seen as backing entrenched Democratic Party political interests on the West Side. Those interests have long exploited the poor as they enjoyed their consumption of federal anti-poverty monies, Martin-Bordeaux explains. “They’ve done it on the West Side, and now they want to do it in the Fruit Belt under the guise of a land trust.”
In the past two years, PUSH has used professional activists, including the outspoken John Washington, in an effort to stir low-level political agitation on the East Side. Those operatives are pushing the concept of a neighborhood land trust that would be tasked with developing city owned lots.
In that scenario, PUSH would have considerable political influence at city hall that could be leveraged to acquire vast swaths of the neighborhood in order to build federally subsidized rental housing in a highly desirable neighborhood adjacent to the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus. Those rental units would generate a lucrative revenue stream for PUSH.
“The freedom fighters have become the colonizers,” she says of the housing developer.
At community meetings, Washington has suggested that his proposed land trust’s board should be comprised of PUSH members, who would have the right to veto proposals by real estate developers.
Martin-Bordeaux thinks that situation is ripe for corruption, by design.
“No one wants John Washington and Aaron Bartley to be able to come to the East Side — in a neighborhood that is not theirs — to be able to approve or reject developer proposals,” she says. “It is an elitist and inappropriate role for a group whose own efficacy has not been firmly established.”
Martin-Bordeaux has been publicly campaigning for a citywide policy requiring community benefit agreements for any real estate development project valued over $10 million. She argues that such a policy will help developers build collaborative relationships with neighborhood partners early in the development process, which will turn obstructionists into business partners.
“The beauty of the community development agreement is that it allows the entire neighborhood to get on board a project, to find a way to fit into the broader development momentum in the city, helping to ensure that our economic development policies are impacting the community in a broad based way,” she says.
“It also takes the current process out of the shadows — where developers are shaken down for kickbacks in order to get approvals,” she explains. “The business community, especially the real estate developers, are with me on this — they want to have a mutually collaborative relationship with our community. They don’t want to see their resources wasted in a politician’s proverbial pocket. They want to help revive the East Side, too.”
With a citywide policy requiring community benefit agreements, and establishing a 3%-5% face value on those agreements, will make investing in Buffalo a less corrupt, more transparent, and far more inclusive process.
“With community benefit agreements everyone can participate, not just the board of one land bank. If a developer wants to build something in your neighborhood, they have to come to your neighborhood and find partners right there,” she says. “It empowers you to set the vision and direction of your neighborhood.”
A community benefits agreement is a contract signed by community groups and a real estate developer that requires the developer to provide specific amenities and/or mitigations to the local community or neighborhood. In exchange, the community groups agree to publicly support the project, or at least not oppose it. Often, negotiating a CBA relies heavily upon the formation of a multi-issue, broad based community coalition including community, environmental, faith-based and labor organizations.
As local governments grapple with their responsibility to shape development and land use patterns, the community benefits movement emerged in the late 1990s to challenge conventional thinking and offer more broad based economic development at the municipal level.
The movement aims to ensure that the main purpose of economic development is to bring measurable, permanent improvements to the lives of affected residents, particularly those in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color. Organizations allied with the community benefits movement have pressured the public sector to play a more strategic role in land use planning and urban growth, and to leverage economic development subsidies toward the creation of good jobs, affordable housing, and neighborhood services that improve the quality of life for all residents.
The community benefits movement began in Los Angeles, with successful implementation at mixed-use projects at Hollywood and Highland, and at the Staples Center. CBAs have been successful in Atlanta, Denver, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, New Haven, New York City, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, San Diego, San Francisco, San Jose, Seattle, Syracuse, Washington, D.C., and Wilmington.
Low-income neighborhoods, non-English speaking areas, and communities of color have historically been excluded from the development process. Having a CBA negotiation process can help to address these problems, providing a forum for all parts of an affected community.
A CBA can ensure that a developer’s promises regarding community benefits are legally enforceable. Developers “pitching” a project often make promises that are never written into any project approval documents, and even when they are, they may not be monitored and enforced by the relevant government agencies. By creating an enforcement mechanism or expanding the class of parties who can enforce these promises, CBAs can make enforcement much easier.
The CBA contract model allows each particular CBA to be tailored to the community’s needs, the size and type of the proposed development, and the relative bargaining power of the community groups and the developer. Benefits may be provided by the developer itself, or a CBA may require the developer to impose CBA provisions on its tenants, vendors, and contractors. Typically, CBAs include job quality standards, local hiring programs, and affordable housing requirements. Other benefits could include, among other things:
- Living wage and prevailing wage requirements
- Local hiring goals
- Job training programs
- Minority/women/local business contracting goals
- Provisions prohibiting developers from hiring contractors that have violated labor or other occupational laws (known as “responsible contractor” provisions)
- Union neutrality requirements
- Retail/commercial space set-asides for small and local businesses
- Big box retail restrictions
- Green building requirements
- Space set-asides for neighborhood organizations, community centers, child-care centers, and other non-profits
- Construction of parks and recreational facilities
- Provisions for community input in the selection of tenants
- Funding for community organizations/programs
- Mitigations in excess of those required under state/local law that address parking, traffic, increased pollution, and other environmental impacts
- Affordable housing requirements
While CBAs are funded by the private sector, PUSH is not.
PUSH’s website names New York State, the City of Buffalo, Councilman David Rivera, and Assemblyman Sean Ryan as financial contributors. Major funding for the organization comes from the Oishei Foundation, M&T Charitable Foundation, and the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC).
Among the organization’s goals are the establishment of an urban land bank.
PUSH Buffalo’s housing arm, Buffalo Neighborhood Stabilization Company (BNSC), is a non-profit housing corporation in the Massachusetts Avenue Corridor of Buffalo’s West Side. It was created in 2009. BNSC currently owns 50 lots, developed as green spaces, community gardens, and rain gardens.
Among the group’s stated goals is to, “prevent gentrification and displacement of residents by ensuring affordable rental and homeowner housing units. The organization also wants to “act as a land bank to acquire vacant housing and lots and stabilize them in preparation for development.”
“The early model of housing development relied heavily on volunteers and consisted of PUSH training and employing local residents to complete much of the work. PUSH recognized that the number of vacant housing units was too great to rely solely on small-scale rehabilitation projects.”
“PUSH and BNSC have, therefore, begun a process to scale up their housing work to include larger projects – projects that will utilize a number of public and private funding sources.”
People United for Sustainable Housing
Bartley is a member of the Cuomo Administration’s Western New York Regional Economic Development Council, tasked with allocating state economic development funding.
Despite ample public funding and pronounced support of a $15 p/hour minimum wage, PUSH has continued its practice of employing underprivileged young people to work on the construction projects below the prevailing wage.