Two years ago, Betty Hathcock applied for a loan to repair her leaky roof on Laurel Street on Buffalo’s East Side.
Despite her frequent calls to the city, she is still waiting.
If the roof had been fixed, it would have prevented other problems in her home that now must be repaired, and she wouldn’t have to leave her oven on – like she did last week – in order to thaw the pipes that freeze in her kitchen.
“Right now, I’m just up in the air,” she said.
Hathcock is just one applicant who has been waiting for years for home repair funds to come through, and construction to be completed.
The Buffalo News reported in early October about delays in processing emergency home repair and home rehabilitation loans. At the time, only three repairs had been completed. Today, 19 repairs have been completed – representing only about 10 percent of the applications that have been filed in the last two years – according to the Buffalo Urban Renewal Agency.
Though BURA contends it is making significant progress in closing loans, Comptroller Mark J.F. Schroeder is fed up. He’s calling on the Brown administration to take the program out of City Hall and give more responsibility to a nonprofit organization that already does much of the work, saying he is “very troubled” by City Hall’s delays in getting loans out to people who need them.
According to Schroeder’s staff, they have been asked to pay contractors for only four of the loans.
About 75 percent of the program is administered by Belmont Housing Resources for Western New York, and in an interview earlier this fall, Mike Riegel, Belmont vice president, said he would prefer that Belmont run the entire program. In a Nov. 18 interview, Riegel said that Belmont had expected to be processing many more applications than the number it has received from the city so far.
“I think BURA was being optimistic thinking the logjam would open soon,” he said.
In a letter to Mayor Byron W. Brown two days later, Schroeder said the program delays are happening in the 25 percent of the program that BURA controls, and the city should turn as much of the program as possible over to Belmont, while retaining some oversight.
“Unfortunately, at least two Buffalo homeowners have passed away waiting for their loans to be processed, and many more have complained to me about the delays and uncertainty plaguing the program,” Schroeder wrote.
The federally funded program provides low-interest or forgivable loans for low-income city residents for repairs so people can continue to live in their homes.
Brendan Mehaffy, executive director of the city’s Office of Strategic Planning, which oversees BURA, said that transferring the entire program to Belmont would cause further delays in getting the repairs completed.
“The experience of the staff we have cannot be replaced,” Mehaffy said. “We are finally on the cusp of having a system that is at least stable.”
He didn’t rule out re-evaluating the division of labor once the current requests for repair loans have been satisfied, but said there are some responsibilities the city would not be able to turn over to a nonprofit agency.
Of 202 loan applications that have been filed in the last two years:
• 19 repairs have been completed;
• 20 repairs are being scheduled;
• 19 construction loan closings are being scheduled;
• 69 are in later stages leading to loan closing;
• 27 are on hold because the applicant is late on city bills;
• 48 will be processed over the next month.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development forced changes in the way the city processes the funds, which slowed down the program, and these delays aren’t typical, Mehaffy said.
“I think now the pace has certainly picked up in terms of the amount of work that we’re doing,” he said, adding that checking to see if applicants still comply with income regulations and are current on their city bills takes time.
The emergency home repair program is the most complicated HUD program that the city administers, he said.
The city has about $4 million yet to be allocated in this program. Mehaffy said he hopes to open it up to new applicants soon.
Schroeder, however, also raised concerns about a recent independent audit of BURA, the agency handling the loans.
The audit, conducted by Dansa & D’Arata, found three deficiencies in BURA’s accounting practices in 2013.
Mehaffy noted that one was brought to auditors’ attention by BURA staff, and two others will be corrected.
“Would it be better if there were no findings? Yes. Are these all correctable? Yes. Are we taking steps to correct them? Yes,” he said.
One concerned a high volume of journal entries that had to be adjusted, and Mehaffy said BURA will add a staff member to address this issue.
Auditors also “noted deficiencies in BURA’s overall control environment,” adding that the agency lacks day-to-day management and oversight. They recommended that the agency “hire an executive director immediately and add an appropriate number of full-time accounting staff within the next fiscal year to maintain proper oversight and management.”
BURA committed to filling the positions before June 30, 2014.
The third finding focused on inflated assessments of land and buildings owned by the agency, which was brought to auditors’ attention by BURA.