The Amherst Industrial Development agency Friday turned down an incentive package worth more than $1.3 million for an $8.9 million project to build 99 market rate apartments for senior citizens on Maple Road.
The rejection of the tax breaks puts the future of the three-story Maple Road Senior Apartments project in doubt, with the developer saying it would not make economic sense without the incentives because monthly rents could increase by as much as $200.
“The project is not viable without the IDA assistance,” said Michael Connors, the director of development for the project’s developer, MEL Investors. “If you’re asking me what the status of the project is without IDA assistance, I’d say it’s dead.”
The Amherst IDA board rejected the tax breaks in a 4-3 vote, with critics questioning the need for taxpayer subsidies for a senior citizens apartment complex that expected to charge rents of $900 to $1,000 a month. They also cited a study by the University at Buffalo that found that fewer than 1 percent of Erie County senior citizens move out of the county because they are unable to find suitable housing – a finding that contradicted a long-held belief that a housing shortage was driving elderly residents away.
Supporters, however, said the project merited taxpayer support because it would provide Amherst’s senior citizens with more housing choices, and they also noted that the agency had provided tax breaks for two other market-rate senior citizen complexes within the past three years. The market study done for the developers found that the vacancy rate at the eight market-rate apartment complexes in the Amherst area was roughly 1 percent.
The developers also stressed that the eligibility guidelines that all of the IDAs in Erie County follow allows incentives for senior housing projects.
“Just because it’s eligible doesn’t guarantee approval,” said Edward Stachura, an IDA board member who voted against the tax breaks.
While the developer presented a market study that noted that Amherst has nearly 30,000 residents age 60 or older and noted that some senior housing facilities in the town have waiting lists of more than a year, Stachura said many other local facilities have waiting times of six months or less and pointed out that the UB study found that the number of people age 75 and older in Erie County is expected to remain relatively flat through 2030.
The project called for the construction of 15 one-bedroom apartments that would rent for about $900 a month and 84 two-bedroom units that would cost about $1,000 in monthly rent on a vacant lot at 1765-1805 Maple Road, between Youngs and Ayer roads. Without the tax breaks, the developer said rents could increase by $200 a month, pushing them to the high end of the local market and making the apartments affordable only to wealthier seniors.
Amherst Supervisor Barry Weinstein, who voted against the project, said the tax breaks average out to about $160 a month for each apartment. “I’d much rather see them go ahead with the project and have it be unsubsidized,” he said.
The developer had hoped the complex would be ready for occupancy by next summer.
“There is clearly a need for this type of project at this location,” said Sean Hopkins, an attorney for the developers.
Hopkins also said the developers had been working on the project for more than a year under the belief that it would qualify for tax breaks, given the county’s eligibility guidelines and the Amherst IDA’s approval of incentives for the Fox Creek Estates apartment complex in 2010 and a 120-unit complex on Sweet Home Road in 2011.
“They relied on the fact that this project qualifies,” Hopkins said.
But IDA board members who opposed the project said the overview of the senior housing market changed with the UB study, which found that fewer than 1 percent of Erie County’s senior citizens move out of the area because of housing considerations. That undercut a long-held tenet among local economic development officials that providing a range of senior citizen housing options was an important factor in keeping the region’s elderly people from moving away.
“We did approve those projects, but the UB study came out only recently,” said board member Stuart Shapiro, who voted against the tax breaks.
Board member Aaron Stanley, however, said the UB study, which itself recommended that more research be done in the senior housing market, should be the basis for a longer-term review to shape the eligibility guidelines for senior housing projects throughout Erie County, not an immediate catalyst for rejecting the Maple Road project.
“I don’t believe we should be changing our policy based on a study that just came before us,” said Stanley, who voted in favor of the tax breaks. “It’s changing policy on the fly.”