A Public Advocate for Buffalo?

This week the City of Buffalo Common Council Legislation Committee held a public hearing on a resolution to establish an elected position of Public Advocate.

Rather than being a critique on the current office holders, the establishment of a Public Advocate would, essentially, help to codify and solidify mechanisms that put and hold people first.

Buffalo flagThroughout his tenure, Mayor Brown and the Common Council have worked together to place an emphasis on citizen services and ways for residents to get involved in public priority setting, such as the broad based citizen input in the Green Code process and programs like the Citizen Participation Academy and the 311 reporting system. The mayor and council have supported numerous investments in crucial community infrastructure, such as a commitment to network of green and Complete Streets to make our streets safer for all users, and investment in our crucial parks infrastructure throughout the city.

However, the district council members are, by their office, first and foremost focused on a discrete subsection of the city, and the Office of the Mayor is tasked with assuring the smooth operations of a broad range of departments, services, investments, projects and planning for the direction and future of the city.

Both of these branches must, appropriately, consider and respond to the interest – and sometimes whims – of a broad range of stakeholders, from other local governments, to state and federal agencies, authorities and politicians, to business leaders, unions, special interests, and more.

While a mayor or council member may not strive to make everyone happy, they are at a minimum put in the position of getting everyone facing in roughly the same direction to move the city or their district forward.

“…the Public Advocate provides balance to a lopsided table, giving voice to those trying to make it in a changing city.”

For decades, the City of Buffalo and its residents have struggled through a diminishing economy and dwindling population. But even now, as the region and the city are seeing increases in employment and development, the stresses and strains on the city’s population remain. The creation of a Public Advocate position would come at an opportune time in the city’s revitalization to ensure that all people benefit.

Because as this tide rises, new challenges face Buffalo’s long-time residents. As a San Francisco housing advocate stated more than a decade ago, “a rising tide lifts all boats, but if you don’t have a boat you’re…” — well, let’s just say sunk. That’s not quite the word he used, but you get the point.

Across the country, the amount of money being spent to influence government continues to grow, and the outsize resources that big money groups bring to bear — lobbying, cajoling and positioning for influence — too often shift the balance of power and policy away from the people and toward an elite class.

The Public Advocate is, essentially, the people’s lobbyist – not representing any one constituency or geographic area, but focused, instead, on the good of the whole, monitoring and tracking city operations and developments through the lens of everyday people, the marginalized and the disadvantaged

As we have seen in other communities, the Public Advocate provides balance to a lopsided table, giving voice to those trying to make it in a changing city. This steady representation gives other decision makers the reinforcement and support they need to to do what’s right for their constituents and put people first.

Another 5 for Friday: NYC edition

“It’s not like ‘Kumbaya.’ It’s really a meaningful exchange.”

City and State’s Gerard Flynn recently published “5 Challenges to de Blasio’s Promise of Inclusive Planning which includes feedback from notable planners and practitioners around New York City (including Tom Angotti, a professor I was fortunate to study under at Hunter) with tips and critiques for true community engaged planning.walkability audit map

Mayor de Blasio’s very public charge to his planning commission is to lead planning and development with community input, rather than following the previous administration’s approach to growth which, the article suggests, aggressively facilitated development but was less focused on planning the context of development comprehensively or collaboratively.

The advice for the Mayor and his staff breaks down like this:

1. Comprehensive community planning takes a lot of time 

2. Comprehensive community planning takes resources

3. Comprehensive community planning takes more than zoning

4. Comprehensive community planning begins in the community

5. Community planning hasn’t delivered in New York City [or, insert your city’s name here] in the past

As with our post two weeks ago, some of these themes seem awfully familiar suggesting — though every community is different and requires a thorough understanding of locally based knowledge — there are some common approaches that planners and community developers need to keep in mind no matter if they are working in NYC or Small Town USA.

Overcoming ingrained community distrust of the process and building trust (see #5 & #4) is no small hurdle and can’t be accomplished overnight (see #1), but neither will a realignment of layers of technocratic and bureaucratic inertia. Not only does community based planning require aligning at times disparate departments and investment streams (housing, infrastructure, services) (see #3), but also creating the flexibility within these structures to tailor a new working relationship to the local, neighborhood based context (see #4). Which brings us back, in a big way, to the resource question (#2).

Community planning is a worthy commitment, but it is certainly as much of a commitment as it is a worthy pursuit. Were there a wand and a spell (communitus planificus!?) to make it so, it would have happened already. That not being the case, making the commitment is the first — and arguably most important — step towards happier, healthier and more united communities.

Tax Day

courtesy flickr user Thirteen Of Clubs

April 15: It’s the day we’ve all been procrastinating for.

But if you’re looking for a way to avoid thinking about your own taxes for a little longer, then take a look at this article referenced by Brookings earlier this month about a successful regional tax base sharing program in Minnesota.

While we realize that reading up on regional tax base policy isn’t for everyone, the example of Minneapolis-St.Paul actually proves, at least, that regional tax base policy can work for everyone.

Leave it to the region that also busted the myth about northern city biking…

As the authors state:

Created by the Minnesota Fiscal Disparities Act of 1971 as an alternative to annexation and consolidation of local governments, the Twin Cities tax-base- sharing program was an attempt to respond to a number of concerns, including increasing property tax rates, tax-base and tax-rate disparities, and inter-jurisdictional competition for
By reducing the need for local governments to “steal” revenue-generating land uses from each other, such policies allow them to engage in more thoughtful and beneficial land-use planning.

One of the lingering challenges for Buffalo-Niagara, and for many regions across the Great Lakes and Northeast, is to reexamine local tax policy that was established before the interdependence of communities within metropolitan regions was as pronounced and magnified as it is today.

As the Buffalo City Council examines new participatory ways to allocate government revenue, is it also time to take a broader look at the way our municipalities allocate revenue in more cooperative rather than competitive ways?

Minnesota’s experience suggests:
The Act’s ultimate success required a “unique coalition of central-city and suburban legislators” working together to ensure the future economic vitality of the entire state.

Recent regional collaboration, including the unprecedented One Region Forward planning process, combined with shifting and improving economic prospects, may just make the timing right for Buffalo Niagara to do the same.

But on behalf of accountants everywhere, maybe we should at least wait until tomorrow.

This old housing stock…

Is Buffalo’s peculiar housing stock in part responsible for its own decline?

this old housing stockIf you hang out in community development circles (and, let’s face it, if you’re reading this you most likely do), then you’ve heard Buffalo has among the oldest housing stock in the nation.

In fact, Buffalo actually has the oldest housing stock for any large city (100,000+ units) in the U.S., with 64% of its units built prior to 1939. Without being retrofitted, these older homes are generally lacking in insulation and carry disproportionately high utility bills. In addition, the presence of unmitigated lead paint is rampant, also leaving Buffalo with disproportionately high instances of lead poisoning.

But Buffalo is unique in another regard. Though a relatively dense city, a very high percentage of Buffalo’s housing units are in houses as opposed to apartment buildings, with a higher portion of two-family houses than any other city. [Suffice it to say it’s a lot, but check the footnote if you really want to wonk out…]

Buffa-lore also holds that the city’s houses were being built as UpState NY was being deforested. The lumber that was floated down the Erie Canal made it the cheap building material of choice, leaving the city with few masonry structures. As noted we noted in the One Region Forward Fair Housing Equity Assessment:

“This type of housing stock has proven difficult to regulate and difficult to preserve as it has aged, in part because of a large and dispersed ownership of often under-capitalized and inexperienced landlords. In a city of larger apartment buildings, an enforcement action (i.e., housing code violation citation or court case) against a landlord may impact an average of 5, 10 or many more units. However, in Buffalo or Niagara Falls, each action may only impact one or two units on average. Further, though larger apartment buildings generally require some substantial capital outlay for acquisition, as the city’s neighborhoods’ housing markets have fallen into decline, many houses have been purchased for a few thousand or even hundreds of dollars.

This has made real estate speculation rampant in some areas. With low levels of initial investment (and, hence, little risk), exploitative landlords have milked properties of their value by failing to perform maintenance or make repairs but meanwhile collecting rents until the properties become unlivable. At this point, some of these owners simply stop paying taxes and walk away, having profited from their transaction, leaving the City, the neighborhood and the neighbors to deal with the problems they have created. Others have sold these properties to unsuspecting buyers, often from out of the area, which has triggered a rash of fraudulent flipping in recent years.”

In addition, one-unit and two-unit houses have too often been exempted from fair housing regulations, essentially allowing discrimination and segregation to persist without consequence.

As an outlier, Buffalo continues to suffer from policy that was built for other areas and other conditions. Much of New York’s housing law and housing assistance programs, for instance, were built around the conditions found in New York City. In another example, the Federal response to the sub-prime foreclosure crisis funneled millions more to an acute crisis of real estate speculation in Mesa, Arizona, rather than Buffalo’s long standing, if slow moving, vacancy crisis.

100 19th Street, Right 106 19th StreetYet, planted in Buffalo’s old, small-scale housing stock are also the seeds of revitalization. A new wave of industrious residents and neighborhood organizations have been able to lay claim to a small piece of the city and begin to rebuild: house by house, block by block.

Various organizations and agencies have also been battling these policy loopholes, and instituting policy changes to help regulate and revitalize properties in neighborhoods across the city. There is much work remaining, but because of their efforts, the city’s real estate market is a far cry from the Wild West(ern New York) that it was even eight to ten year ago.



*Footnote for wonks: 72.8% of all Buffalo housing units are in single family detached or 2-family structures, second only in percentage to Bakersfield, CA for cities with more than 100,000 housing units. Buffalo is 1st in the country for percentage of 2-unit structures among the 561 included in the 2012 American Community Survey at 40.2% of units. The next closest city is Paterson, NJ at 35.5% and among those with 100,000 or more units, Jersey City is second at only 23.9%. For more than 4 units, Buffalo has the second smallest percentage (15.8%) of cities with more than 100,000 units, once again behind Bakersfield (13.2%).

Grassroots Gardens of Buffalo

Grassroots Gardens has long been Buffalo’s community garden support organization.

Community Gardens are an incredible reuse of vacant or underutilized land in the city, and create neighborhood assets out of liabilities. In addition, they can provide fresh, healthy food in “food deserts” – communities where it can be difficult to access fresh produce.

With more than 70 gardens throughout the city, Grassroots Gardeners are growing more than 20,000 square feet of food-producing space in addition to many ornamental plants and community gathering spaces.

Grassroots Gardens also have an ongoing community education partnership with Urban Roots and continue to grow the Buffalo Sprouts School Gardens program. Last year they launched Buffalo Sprouts Seedling Stewards, a community driven vacant lot mapping mobile platform and their first Community Garden Month.

Look for more great work in the year ahead from Grassroots Gardens!


Think Spring: Urban Roots

Posting will be light this week as Make Communities takes a very non-MTV-style spring break.

In lieu of regular updates, we’ll be posting links to some of our favorite places and organizations that make us think of spring – even if the snow is still flying.

First up: Urban Roots.

Urban RootsUrban Roots Community Cooperative Garden Center Cooperative is the nation’s first consumer-cooperative garden retailer – think food co-ops, but selling plants, supplies and materials.

Urban Roots opened with community-based capital on Buffalo’s West Side in April 2007, and has grown to nearly 1,000 members.

This growing season look for Urban Roots to expand its inside sales in the next door storefront that incubated 5 Points Bakery. Outside they’ll be running test gardens for vegetable plants native to many of Buffalo’s immigrant communities, and have partnered with the WASH project which will also have a garden on site.

While it may be a bit too early to plant outside, stop in for seeds, supplies, to take a class, become a member or just to get the feeling of springtime..

.seed-packetsSpring Workshops

what are your five?

5 ses st

In addition to Monday’s reference to Simran Noor’s  five actions the bike movement can take to advance racial equity, two other articles came across the screen this week with five points of advice for people-focused urban regeneration.

The first, from Bloomberg Philanthropies Tommy Pacello who served as the Director of the Mayor’s Innovation Team in Memphis, TN. His definition of city innovation includes “developing bold solutions to big urban challenges”, and through his work with Memphis he was engaged with both reducing gun violence and economic revitalization of distressed communities.  Out of this experience, he developed a top five list for fellow City Innovators, and it looks like this:

1. Activate the community

2. Numbers are your friend

3. Break down the silos

4. Don’t forget the importance of project management

5. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel

Meanwhile, at CityFix also chimed in with five reflections on ways technology can support better urban living from the Smart City Expo World Congress which recently wrapped up in Montreal. The conference focused on smart cities under the rubric of “energy and climate change, urban resilience, open government, and sustainable mobility”, with “the idea that smart cities are not truly sustainable unless they equip their citizens with the tools they need to contribute to civic life.” Dario’s top five are employing technology to:

1. Helping planners understand mobility needs

2. Empowering communities to engage in the planning process

3. Improving the travel experience

4. Integrating technology as a component of wider sustainable development objectives

5. Rediscovering bicycle ‘technology’

Themes of community-driven, data verified policy and programs run through both. So does working broadly and collaboratively and having an appreciation for those existing solutions that may need to be emphasized or enhanced, in other words, building on assets.

Many of these points are also similar themes to many of those sounded in the One Region Forward Complete Communities report, which gives a series of stakeholder-driven recommendations about making quality neighborhoods for all residents: data for informed decision making; pursuing neighborhood specific, asset based strategies for neighborhood redevelopment; and ensuring adequate capacity to carry out neighborhood projects.

Though there is some overlap, there are certainly many lessons to be learned from the various perspectives and emphases that lists like these bring.

So what about you? What are your top five recommendations for revitalizing communities in your area of focus?

Fair Housing Month

“…where one lives determines how one lives, influencing quality of life factors such as education, employment, transportation options, public services, safety, recreational access, and a general sense of community.”


In last Thursday’s post on redlining, I touched on one of the major practices that has historically kept people of color from an open an fair housing market. Unfortunately, this is far from the only one, nor are these unfair practices all behind us.

Equal_Housing_LogoIn fact, it is not just people of color, but families, the elderly, people with physical impairments, the LGBTQ community and those with limited English proficiency, among others, that face barriers to fair housing.

April is Fair Housing month, a time for highlighting these challenges and working together to help eliminate the roadblocks that people face to quality housing.

The Erie County Fair Housing Partnership brings together a coalition of local service providers, non-profits, government agencies and local businesses in order to advance fair housing in the region. Make Communities had the honor of presenting the One Region Forward Fair Housing Equity Assessment (FHEA) at their annual meeting, earlier this year. In all, though, the FHEA is a document that reflects their shared knowledge and passion for this work.

Among them, Housing Opportunities Made Equal (HOME) has been a champion of fair housing in the region for decades. From their website:

Housing Opportunities Made Equal is a fair housing organization continuing the struggle for civil rights by working to promote the value of diversity and to ensure all people an equal opportunity to live in the housing and communities of their choice—-through education, advocacy, the enforcement of fair housing laws and the creation of housing opportunities. 

The FHEA summarizes their activities:

“HOME now operates a comprehensive set of Fair Housing activities in the seven county region… HOME offers a landlord and tenant training program, and a community education program that spans from workshops to publications for human service agencies, government and school groups.

Through their Fair Housing Unit, HOME also provides direct assistance to victims of housing discrimination, by investigating complaints, informing clients of the law and of their legal rights and helping them to navigate the system of enforcement. HOME also operates the Greater Buffalo Community Housing Center… to help voucher recipients evaluate their housing and location options to determine what neighborhood(s) will provide them with the best housing options for them. Since its inception, the program has assisted more than 4,000 families.”

For all of the great work that HOME and non-profit housing providers have accomplished, there is still much work to be done. That’s just one of the reasons a host of neighborhood based organizations will be participating in Fair Housing Month activities throughout April.

Throughout the month, we’ll also continue to highlight some of the challenges facing Fair Housing and organizations striving for housing equity, and we’ll also look at some of the recommendations for advancing this important cause.

Buffalo’s Best Google Pac-Man Maps

If you haven’t yet played the Google Maps Pac-Mac mash-up, then do yourself a favor and play it now before it’s gone. Just don’t expect to accomplish much else today…

Here are some great places to try out in Buffalo, with thanks to both Ellicott and Olmsted, click the maps for the direct link:

Buffalo Pac Man

Niagara Square

forest lawn

Forest Lawn Cemetery

Lafayette Square

Lafayette Square

Central Terminal

The Central Terminal

soldiers circle

Soldiers Circle


For extra difficultly, try out Colonial Circle, yikes!