Alma Egan applied nearly two years ago for a loan to repair her roof in the city’s Masten District.
The loan was approved, and the contractor’s bid accepted.
But the loan still hasn’t come through – and she has since died.
For 205 low-income homeowners waiting for federal loans to help make repairs and help them stay in their homes, months have turned into years as applicants face a frustrating bureaucracy. The holdups, as long as two years for some people, have forced families to live through cold winters and rainy springs with leaky roofs.
The City of Buffalo, which administers the program for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, blames the delays on new HUD requirements that prohibited the city from spending certain funds until new processes were in place. And in the last few weeks, they say, three applicants have had their repairs completed, one repair is under way, two jobs have been scheduled, and 22 loans have closed.
“Everyone is working earnestly to get this done,” said Brendan Mehaffy, executive director of the city’s Office of Strategic Planning, emphasizing HUD’s exacting standards. “We’re not going to skip steps, because nobody wins at the end of the day.”
The city comptroller, however, blames City Hall, saying applications have been “stuck in this vacuum for three years because of the inability of” the Buffalo Urban Renewal Agency.
“The question I’m raising is, why do the residents of the City of Buffalo have to be tortured like this?” said Comptroller Mark J.F. Schroeder. “Why does it take so long?”
Egan’s son Daniel says the shingles are now falling off his mother’s home and the roof has started to leak. And he isn’t sure if his mother’s house will still be eligible for the city money, since his mother died while waiting for the bureaucracy to work.
Red tape, few loans
The program started out as just the sort of initiative needed in Buffalo, which has the third-highest poverty rate in the country and tens of thousands of older homes needing repairs. It offered low-interest or forgivable loans for emergency repairs and rehabilitations to owner-occupied structures.
The loans’ favorable terms made the program attractive, said Laura Kelly, director of the Old First Ward Community Center. Linda Chiarenza, executive director of West Side Neighborhood Housing Services, said her organization steers everyone it can to the program.
“It’s a wonderful program because they have more lenient rules,” she said.
The normal delays appeared to worsen last year when HUD required federal block grant funds to flow differently through City Hall. Mehaffy notes that Buffalo wasn’t the only city that HUD required to change the way they spend federal funds. But the result was that any application that didn’t have a signed contract in place was delayed, he said.
HUD officials could not be reached for comment because of the government shutdown, but a HUD spokesman said last year that other cities that use urban renewal agencies have not had the same problems that Buffalo has and that the restrictions here are the result of Buffalo’s “history of problems” in its use of HUD funds.
Meanwhile, construction costs increased, and contracts for home repairs had to be renegotiated. The city also had to check to ensure applicants hadn’t fallen behind on city bills or had changes to their income that would make them ineligible, Mehaffy said.
The result: In the past four years, according to the city comptroller’s office, the city has committed only $1.2 million of the nearly $5.5 million it could have distributed to repair city homes.
Delay worsens problem
Betty Hathcock, 70, has been waiting for two years for a grant to repair her roof, also in the Masten District.
When it rains, her house floods. The house has been plagued with mold, and she has had to pull up the carpets.
Her foundation was damaged a few years ago when the city tore down a house next door, she said.
The city told her she would get the grant in January, then August, then September, said her daughter, Stephanie Alsqqaf.
She is still waiting.
“It’s caused her health problems to escalate,” Alsqqaf said. “She wants to try to keep the home because the home has been in the family for generations.”
Hathcock owed $8 on a city utility bill, which delayed her repair application. She didn’t know she owed anything until she called the city to see why she hadn’t received the loan yet, she said.
“If it was done two years ago, I wouldn’t need as much as I do now,” Hathcock said.
Like many community centers in the city, the Old First Ward Community Center is the first stop for people seeking grants for emergency repairs. But during the last two years, said Kelly, the center’s director, two people who applied through the Old First Ward center died while they waited for City Hall.
When HUD put the city on notice last year, Schroeder asserted his department’s authority to oversee how federal funds are spent.
Applications for home repair funds go through BURA, which is overseen by Mehaffy’s office. The applications are processed by Belmont Housing Resources of Western New York, which has a contract with the city. Once the applications are approved, the urban renewal agency sends them to Schroeder’s office, where they are reviewed. If the application is in order, a construction loan is closed and the contractor is given a notice to proceed.
Belmont Housing, which handles about 75 percent of the responsibilities for the program, has fielded many phone calls from applicants, elected officials and social service agencies wondering when the loans would come through.
“I would much prefer the city to contract with us to run the whole program, give us control over it,” said Mike Riegel, Belmont vice president.
The comptroller’s office, formally known as Audit and Control, paid some loans in August 2012, then didn’t pay any until June, when two roofs were done.
The comptroller didn’t receive any applications again until mid-September, when 49 were delivered in two days.
Schroeder finds the submission of so many applications at once frustrating.
“We in Audit are meeting with BURA every week,” Schroeder said. “During these conversations we point out certain things, and we ask for things to be sent to us in an expedited way.”
Schroeder doesn’t want to get another large batch of applications at once.
“I am getting to a point where I’m getting frustrated with BURA, and at some point in time I am going to start offering comments of what my opinion of BURA is,” he said. “For now, we’re going to continue to work on this and do the best that we can.”