In their quest to transform one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods into a more racially and economically diverse destination of “choice,” Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority officials and their planning partners have alarmed some tenant leaders, who fear that blacks could be moved out.
One sentence in the 183-page Perry Choice Neighborhood Transformation Plan has left them thinking – mistakenly, according to housing officials – that the plan really aims to displace the majority African-American population that lives in the Commodore Perry Homes and the surrounding community.
The plan’s “Goals, Outcomes and Metrics” section says that one objective is to “Decrease concentration of minority (African-American) population in the Perry neighborhood.”
“Why would you say that?” asked Sam Smith, chairman of Jurisdiction-Wide Resident Council of Buffalo, which represents public housing tenants across the city.
“I don’t think they realize how offensive that statement is,” Smith added, recalling the hazards of past “urban renewal” plans that displaced blacks.
Joseph A. Mascia, an elected tenant representative on the BMHA Board of Commissioners, also found the language objectionable.
“Why single out one group? If they had just left it at ‘minority population,’ they never would have had a problem with me,” said Mascia, who raised his concerns at a recent BMHA board meeting.
“We shouldn’t be displacing people to improve the neighborhood. We should just improve the neighborhood,” he added.
Henry L. Taylor Jr., project coordinator for the transformation plan, said it does not call for displacing anyone, much less current residents of Commodore Perry.
“The concept of the term ‘de-concentration’ is that as we redevelop the neighborhood into a mixed-income, cross-cultural community, the overall percentage of African-Americans who live in the community will fall,” said Taylor.
“No one who currently lives in Commodore Perry will get displaced,” Taylor added. “Anybody currently in Commodore Perry who lives there now and wants to return will be able to do that.”
In 2011, the BMHA was one of 17 applicants out of 119 nationwide awarded federal Department of Housing and Urban Development funding for its Choice Neighborhoods initiative, which is similar to HUD’s Hope VI initiative from the late 1990s that redeveloped the Lakeview Projects. But while Hope VI focused on the public housing developments themselves, Choice Neighborhoods also includes the surrounding communities.
BMHA partnered with the University at Buffalo’s Center for Urban Studies and the City of Buffalo to write the Choice Neighborhood’s grant proposal. The transformation plan was completed in June and submitted to HUD in hopes of securing one of the $30 million HUD grants.
Taylor, who is director of the Center for Urban Studies, was a principal author of the planning document and its executive summary, which he collaborated on with Wallace Roberts & Todd, a national planning firm based in Philadelphia that specializes in distressed neighborhoods, particularly those with public housing.
Taylor said the proposed Perry Choice Neighborhood – which extends from South Park Avenue north to Sycamore Street, and from Michigan Avenue east to Smith Street – has the highest concentration of vacant land in the city.
“It’s not like if we bring in 15,000 new residents that somebody has to leave,” he said.
Far from attempting to create an exclusive neighborhood from which African-Americans and low-income residents would be displaced, Taylor said the aim is to maintain the current population and attract a diversity of new residents to a safe, stable and attractive neighborhood with desired amenities.
“We’re mainly concerned about how we can increase quality of life and neighborhood housing services, because we want people to want to stay there so it becomes a neighborhood of choice, not one that residents feel trapped in,” Taylor said.
Having actively opposed gentrification movements in the past, Taylor said it would not make sense for him to endorse such a plan now.
“I have spent my entire professional life fighting to improve and make the life chances of African-American people much better,” said Taylor. “I am never going to be part of any project that has as a prime objective displacing black people from their neighborhoods.”
However, in retrospect, he acknowledged, “it would have been less confusing to have made the statement that we want to increase the number of higher income groups, including whites and other racial groups. There were less controversial ways we could have made the same point.”
Mascia said that, until a few weeks ago when the final transformation plan was posted online, he had read only the summary, which did not allude to decreasing the African-American concentration.
“We never saw that language,” said Mascia.
“This just encourages the mindset of Buffalo being discriminatory,” he added.
Elaine Diallo, another elected tenant representative on the BMHA Board of Commissioners and vice president of the Shaffer Village Resident Council, agreed that the language comes across as discriminatory and “does not show a good amount of respect for the African-American community.”
Smith, who lives in BMHA’s Stuyvesant Apartments, said he also was troubled by the plan’s stated goal to decrease the number of households participating in government safety net programs.
“The last time I looked, subsidized housing is a safety net program,” Smith said.
There is historical precedent for his concern, Smith added.
“Under urban renewal, they condemned perfectly good homes where African-Americans lived because they wanted to move them from downtown,” said Smith. “After 37 years, they put them back. My concern is that the same thing will happen with Perry Choice.”
“My hope is they did not jeopardize the grant by putting that language in there,” he added.
Modesto Candelario, deputy executive director of the BMHA, said he could see how some people might be troubled by the language in the plan, but the aim of the plan is “to increase the diversity of the population, both in terms of income and ethnically and racially.”
“If you increase the diversity, you wind up reducing the population of a specific demographic. That’s the logistics of the effort,” Candelario said.