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For years, the guiding thought when it came to handing out tax breaks for senior citizens apartment complexes has been: “If we don’t build them, our seniors will move away.”

It was the justification for incentives to build independent living centers, assisted living facilities, low-income senior apartments and even market-rate apartment complexes.

Now, that long-held tenet is coming into question following a study by researchers at the University at Buffalo that found that fewer than 1 percent of all senior citizens move out of the region because they couldn’t find suitable housing. If the tax breaks are just helping elderly residents move from one street to the next, or one town to another, that’s not economic development. It’s a nice taxpayer-funded present for a few thousand lucky senior citizens.

Those questions prodded the Amherst Industrial Development Agency to reject, by the narrowest of margins, $1.34 million in tax breaks for an upscale 99-unit apartment complex on Maple Road.

“There was the assumption that people were leaving in droves,” said James J. Allen, the Amherst IDA’s executive director. “Then this study comes back and says that’s not true.”

The rejection was a big blow to the developers because the tax breaks equaled about $160 a month for each apartment over the next seven years – the span the IDA’s tax abatement would have covered.

The developers, MEL Investors, said the project wouldn’t be viable without the tax breaks because it would push rents on a one-bedroom unit up to $1,100 from their subsidized $900 rate, and two-bedroom apartments would cost $1,200 instead of $1,000. On Friday, they were threatening to pull the plug on the whole project.

Even with the tax breaks, rents at the Maple Road Senior Apartments would rank in the top 25 percent among the Buffalo Niagara region’s apartment rents, according to the developer’s own study. Without them, they’d be in the top 16 percent.

“We’d exclude the sweet spot of the market that we’re targeting. “Remember, these are people who are on a fixed income,” said Sean Hopkins, an attorney for the developer.

“People get to a point in their life where they’re on a fixed income and they need affordable housing,” said Michael Connors, MEL’s development director. “If there aren’t affordable options, they may be forced to move to another community or even move out of the area.”

“I don’t think this is affordable housing. It’s not to say it’s unaffordable, but it’s not for the core of people,” said Amherst Supervisor Dr. Barry Weinstein, who opposed the tax breaks. “That’s within the marketplace. I don’t see where it puts them at a disadvantage. They’re new. They’re easier to rent.”

The debate forced IDA board members to wade through competing studies that came to very different conclusions.

The developer’s study said there is a glaring need for more senior apartments, with a 1 percent vacancy rate at the eight market-rate senior housing projects in the Amherst area. They noted that 90 people are on the waiting list to get into the St. Mary’s Apartments in Williamsville.

But the UB study found that St. Mary’s is the exception, with a median waiting list of just three people at all 36 market-rate senior apartment complexes across Erie County. It said demand for senior housing, which is strongest among people age 75 and up, isn’t expected to increase in Erie County until 2030.

The UB study is a powerful reason for local IDAs to think long and hard before granting tax breaks for any more market-rate senior apartments.

The Amherst IDA on Friday launched its own review of the senior housing policy, in hopes that it will prod other Erie County IDAs to join in. “We’ve got to tighten up on senior housing,” Allen said. “It’s not that we should not do it. It’s that we shouldn’t be doing every one.”

email: drobinson@buffnews.com