Equal Housing Opportunities in New York: An Evaluation of
Section 8 Housing Programs in Buffalo, Rochester, and Syracuse

Chapter 5

Section 8 Housing in the Buffalo Area

This chapter provides a portrait of the Section 8 housing situation in the Buffalo area, covering such topics as demographics of the area, barriers to fair housing, and tenant experiences. Divided into six sections, it first describes the demographic characteristics of the city and surrounding area. Next it describes the administrative structure and process of the two housing agencies, the Rental Assistance Corporation and Belmont Shelter Corporation, which run the area’s Section 8 programs. Then it focuses on the Section 8 housing issues germane to Buffalo, including residency requirements and waiting lists.

In addition, the chapter contains presentations from three tenants who describe their personal experiences with the Section 8 program, and statements from local community advocacy organizations, including Housing Opportunities Made Equal, Neighborhood Legal Services, and the Western New York Law Center. Finally a section is included on the refusal of Buffalo’s Section 8 administrators, the Rental Assistance Corporation and Belmont Shelter Corporation, to attend the meeting.

Demographic Characteristics 

According to the 1990 census, Buffalo has a population of 328,000, with minorities constituting approximately 35 percent of the population.1 Buffalo is at the center of a hypersegregated metropolitan area in which none of the surrounding suburbs has a minority population greater than 5 percent.2 Over 90 percent of all minority renters in the metropolitan area live within the city of Buffalo.3 The housing stock in Buffalo is primarily of pre-1940 construction and has suffered a high degree of deterioration. The suburban housing stock is almost entirely of post-1940 construction and is generally in good condition.4 Compared with its suburbs, Buffalo is poorer5 and has higher unemployment.6

Section 8 Housing Agencies  

Two housing agencies provide Section 8 programs in Buffalo: the Rental Assistance Corporation (RAC) for the central city, and the Belmont Shelter Corporation (Belmont), a private, nonprofit organization for the suburbs. Belmont administers the Section 8 program on behalf of a consortium of 41 suburban towns and villages. Each program maintains separate offices, separate wait lists, and separate application procedures.

Approximately 64,000 Section 8 eligible renter households live in the city of Buffalo, and approximately 54,000 eligible renter households live in Erie County outside the city.7 Since 1976, HUD has allocated approximately 6,500 Section 8 subsidies to the entire metropolitan area, with about half going to the Buffalo program. As a result, the wait list for a subsidy from the city program has been several years longer than the list for the suburban program.8 In 1995 the RAC Section 8 program administered 2,796 certificates and vouchers within the city of Buffalo, while Belmont administered more than 3,300 subsidies, making its Section 8 program the largest among Syracuse, Rochester, and Buffalo.9  

Barriers to Section 8 Mobility  

When the Section 8 program came to Buffalo and its suburbs in the mid-1970s, the African American population in the suburbs was less than 1 percent, while in the city of Buffalo it was over 26 percent.10 Despite this pronounced disparity, in 1976 HUD approved the use of local residency preferences by the suburban HA. The result was to put over half of the Section 8 subsidies in the Buffalo area out of the reach of almost all minority applicants.

This residency preference has had negative effects on the minority population of the city of Buffalo. City residents who applied to the suburban program for subsidies were passed over whenever a suburban resident applied, regardless of whether that suburban resident applied months, or even years, after them. While African American city residents waited over 10 years for subsidies they would never receive, white suburban applicants received subsidies within 18 to 24 months.11 Fewer than 3 percent of the subsidies in the suburban program were provided to minorities.12

A lawsuit, Comer v. Cisneros, was brought against the Belmont program in 1992 to challenge its use of residency requirements as being discriminatory and promoting segregation in their effects.13 (The results of the lawsuit are discussed later in this chapter.) Today the area still maintains separate city and suburban programs.

Tenant Experiences  

The Advisory Committee heard from three individuals who have had direct experience with the Section 8 program in Buffalo, either as recipients or as applicants. These three panelists described the difficulty they encountered in obtaining a Section 8 certificate, including unending waits, lost applications, and the inability to access a suburban landlord list. They also cited familial status discrimination and poor public transportation as barriers.

Jituan James
Endless Waiting Lists and Lack of Transportation

Jituan James applied for Section 8 benefits in late 1988 in Buffalo through RAC. She said whenever she called to check on the status of her application, she was told that there was a long waiting list, and there was no need for her to call back. When she called in 1992, the RAC claimed that it had never received her application, so she was forced to reapply. In 1997 she was still waiting.

 Ms. James is a single mother with a 16-year-old son and lives in an inner-city neighborhood with prevalent drug activity and prostitution. Her son, she said, has been asking if they could move because he said the majority of kids are into selling drugs and he does not want to get into that kind of crowd. She said that the other kids call him a “Mom’s boy” because she makes him come home when it gets dark.14 She continued:

Where I lived, all night long there would be hollering. . . . There’s a guy who lived next door, he sold drugs. So, they would be hollering all night, calling him, trying to get him to sell packages, and it’s like they might as well sit in my house with me because that’s how loud it would be . . . I was like, enough is enough, whatever I have to do, I’ll just do it. It was time for me to go.15

Ms. James had been trying to find a different place to live since 1994, but all the apartments she looked at were prohibitively expensive. She was willing to do whatever it took to move her son out of her neighborhood, but it was not until 1995, after not being able to find an affordable apartment by calling the classified ads, that she decided to take a new approach.

She succeeded, she said by “combing the streets” outside of the city, going to the suburbs whenever she had extra money for gas. She found an apartment by driving “up and down” the suburban streets and stopping and inquiring in as many as 30 apartment complexes. At one complex, she was able to negotiate the price down to an affordable level and signed a lease. Transportation is now the problem facing Ms. James, although she does have a car:

Sometimes I don’t have gas. Once when my car was down, I took my daughter to the doctor, we left for the doctor at 3:00 p.m., left the doctor’s office at 5:00 and didn’t get home till 9:00 p.m. We were waiting for a bus . . . it don’t run regularly, and the way the bus route ran . . . for me to be able to get home, I had to walk a ways to get there.16

Ms. James said she still enjoys living where she does, but that the expenses without Section 8 are getting prohibitive. “I called to check to see where I was on the [waiting] list and they said they were still on 1991 . . . They’ve been on 1991 for awhile.”17 She concluded by saying that she called the Section 8 office again in the summer of 1996 and was told that they were on April 1991. She called again in December 1996 and was told that they were still on April 1991.

Ellen Moore
Section 8 and Familial Status Discrimination

Grace Andriette, staff attorney for Buffalo Neighborhood Legal Services, described the experience of a client, Ellen Moore, who is African American. Ms. Moore, a Section 8 recipient through the Belmont program, obtained her certificate 6 years ago and used it to move out of the city of Buffalo and into the community of Lancaster, northeast of Buffalo. Within the first 2 weeks of her move, she “had racial slurs painted on her door and a fire set in her doorway.”18 She decided to remain and stayed without further incident for several years until she decided to try “to move closer to Buffalo because she was concerned with transportation issues.”19

According to Ms. Andriette, Buffalo has a fairly comprehensive public transportation system within the city, but in the suburbs the transportation system becomes fairly linear and difficult for people who do not have cars. For that reason, Ms. Moore decided to move to Cheektowaga, an area closer to the city and the public transportation hub.

Using her Section 8 certificate, Ms. Moore attempted to rent an apartment in a building on the bus line. For many years she was rejected. She said she finally met with a landlord but he was concerned how she as a single mother would care for her daughter, even though she assured him that she had child care, etc. The landlord was also concerned that she was not financially able to rent the apartment, even though her Section 8 benefits could clearly cover the rent.

Ms. Moore filed a lawsuit against the landlord, and its ensuing investigations revealed the following: (1) the landlord had in fact rented to white Section 8 recipients, and (2) he had rented to individuals on public assistance who were financially less able to afford the apartment for which Ms. Moore was applying. The lawsuit was still pending as of the December 1997  factfinding meeting.20

Sharon Smith
Refusal of Suburban HA to Share Landlord List

Sharon Smith is a Section 8 recipient with a four-bedroom apartment voucher. She lives in the city and is the guardian of her two grandchildren, ages 9 and 14, and cares for two mentally disabled women. She wanted to move to a safer and better place for her grandchildren outside of the city. She recently found out that the school that her grandchildren attended had been cited for chemical contamination:

They said that they’ve known about the contamination since 1993, but they didn’t want to get everybody into an uproar. The bottom line is I [wanted ] to move. I’m not going to stay in Pine Harbor because I feel like I have a four-bedroom voucher, and I can live anywhere I want to live, any place. I could take that voucher anywhere, all over the United States, if I want to. So, I’m going to move.21  

She asked the RAC to transfer her case to Belmont Shelter. She was told by her case worker at RAC to first locate a house and she would then transfer her case. Ms. Smith pointed out that she did not know exactly where to begin looking and RAC was not able to help her:

I need the [suburban rental] list because the list would help me. How am I supposed to know exactly where to look or where to call for these houses? In other words, I could sit down, call four, five, six landlords and make appointments and go see the apartments. But a lot of times, when you call in the paper about an apartment, a lot of people don’t accept Section 8. Why should I scout all over the suburbs and all different places … that’s not going to do me any good.22

She decided to go to Belmont Shelter and ask for its rental listings. When it was revealed that she was not a Belmont client, she was told by the Belmont personnel to “go back to [her] own program,”23 and that they couldn’t give her the listing. When Ms. Smith asked about transferring into their program, she was again told to “go back to your own program.”24

She went back to her case worker and was told that they could not make Belmont give her the list and instead offered her the list for the city of Buffalo. “I said I don’t want that. I have one. I said that’s not what I want because I do not want to stay in the city of Buffalo,”25 she told the Committee.

She said she next contacted HUD in Washington, and after numerous calls and run-arounds, talked to the area coordinator for the Buffalo office and was told it would be looked into. Several months later, she received a call from HUD saying that they cannot make Belmont give her the list. She was given the name of James Morrissey, executive director of the Western New York Law Project, a public interest legal service center, who has taken her case, which was pending before a judge as of the December 1997 factfinding meeting.26

Ms. Smith recently reported to Mr. Morrissey that she is now residing on the north side of Buffalo, in a neighborhood of much lower poverty concentration. She is one of very few minorities in the neighborhood but is very happy with her housing and her move. She expressed concern that the policy of refusing the suburban landlord list to RAC clients continues. She stated that a friend of hers recently went through a similar problem in obtaining a list of noncity landlords from Belmont. At first her friend was given a list with only city properties. She asked for more referrals and was told there were no others available. When she insisted, however, the Belmont staff person located a second list that included properties outside the city.27 Mr. Morrissey said that he intends to follow-up on this issue with HUD.

Housing Advocates

The Advisory Committee heard presentations from representatives of three local agencies that provide support and legal services to low-income individuals who feel that they are the victims of housing discrimination: Housing Opportunities Made Equal; the Western New York Law Center; and Neighborhood Legal Services of Buffalo, Inc. Among the concerns brought to the Committee’s attention were the following:

The panelists provided the Advisory Committee with examples of these concerns and others during their presentations.

Housing Opportunities Made Equal

Scott Gehl is the executive director of Housing Opportunities Made Equal (HOME), a not-for- profit organization that provides comprehensive services to victims of housing discrimination. HOME is under contract with the city of Buffalo, the town of Hamburg, and 34 municipalities in the Erie County Block Grant Consortium to provide fair housing services.

According to Mr. Gehl, housing discrimination occurs with some frequency in western New York. In the past 3 years alone, HOME has recorded more than 900 incidents of discrimination. According to data collected by HOME, 37 percent of complaints involved race. Familial status accounted for 34 percent of complaints received, while sex or marital status and disability accounted for 20 percent and 13 percent, respectively.28  

HOME has also recorded discrimination due to age, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, and lawful source of income.29 In 1996 HOME filed 30 discrimination cases with administrative agencies and courts as a result of their investigation, all of which are still pending. While HOME receives more complaints of housing discrimination than any other agency in western New York, Mr. Gehl believes that complaints received represent only a small portion of discrimination that actually occurs:

Today discrimination tends to be so subtle that most often its victims are unsure when it has occurred. Others may recognize it but be uncertain about their rights or whom to call. Still others in the midst of the frenzied search for housing, which is when most discrimination occurs, simply can’t afford to take the time to report it.30

He cited four other barriers besides discrimination that prevent minorities in the Section 8 program from moving out of predominantly minority and impoverished neighborhoods:

  1. Shortcomings of mass transit in the Buffalo area, “especially after crossing the city line.”

  2. Lack of knowledge about both housing opportunities in suburban communities and the services and facilities existing there.

  3. Absence of a support network of family and friends, which makes a move to a suburban community seem all the more forbidding.

  4. The feeling that minorities are not welcomed.31

Stressing the seriousness of the public transportation issue, Mr. Gehl told the story of Cynthia Wiggens, a young black mother from the inner city who was killed while trying to cross seven lanes of traffic on her way to work in a fast food restaurant at a suburban shopping mall. After her death, it was revealed that the developers of the mall had refused permission from the Buffalo Public Transit Authority to route their inner-city, outbound Walden Avenue bus onto mall property. Allegedly, the mall owners feared that such access would increase the number of minority shoppers who came to the upscale mall.32 A civil lawsuit has been filed against the mall developers, and since the incident public transportation has been routed into the mall.

Several years ago, one public official told Mr. Gehl “that the town fathers of his community believed HOME to be a ‘radically pro-integrationist organization,’ which wanted to introduce undesirable elements into his community.”33 Mr. Gehl concluded, “Until [local] government attitudes toward fair housing change, minority families will not feel welcome in suburban communities, and the increased opportunities in choice, which are the benefits of the Section 8 program, will remain an unkept promise.”34

Neighborhood Legal Services of Buffalo

Grace Andriette is a staff attorney with Neighborhood Legal Services, Inc., a nonprofit organization that investigates allegations of discrimination and provides community education on the issues of fair housing and housing discrimination to consumers and housing providers.

Ms. Andriette believes that “discrimination in the nineties can be a very subtle affair, and often victims of discrimination are not aware that they have been discriminated against,” making it necessary to provide tenant education on fair housing laws and education to landlords or providers of housing.35 Persistent discrimination, in her opinion, underscores the proactive value of the Section 8 program. She said:

Given the history of racial discrimination and segregation in Buffalo, I don’t believe that it’s surprising that many low-income individuals decide not to venture out of known neighborhoods when they are given Section 8 benefits. As far as the affirmative duty of HAs to provide fair housing, I think it’s not simply enough for Section 8 providers to advise recipients of Section 8 benefits that they can now use their vouchers and certificates to travel outside of the Buffalo metropolitan area. There needs to be active participation by the Section 8 providers in encouraging housing mobility.36

According to Ms. Andriette, Section 8 beneficiaries need information about transportation, the lack of which is often the obstacle that ultimately discourages people from moving out of the inner city. “A person who doesn’t have a car, who’s traveling to unfamiliar communities that bus lines don’t service, often has a difficult time in securing housing. It is very expensive, for example, to take a taxi to travel from one available apartment to the next.”37

She recommended a Section 8 housing mobility center that would provide information about public transportation, shopping centers, churches, and schools as a resource that would be important in assisting people in their attempts to find housing.38

Western New York Law Center, the Comer Settlement, and the Community Housing Center

The Western New York Law Center, according to its executive director James M. Morrissey, was created to handle class action lawsuits throughout western New York. The center chose to focus on the use of residency preferences in the Buffalo area. Concerning the impact of the residency preference policy, he stated:

 If you looked at the clientele that were being served by the two programs [RAC in the city and Belmont in the suburbs], the hole of the doughnut was black and the rest of the doughnut was white. The effect was to prevent entirely, almost without exception, African Americans from using their subsidies outside of the city of Buffalo. Under the local preference policy, if Sharon Smith …in the event that she wasn’t discouraged from applying in the first place, had gone to Belmont in 1990 and asked for a subsidy, her name would have been put on the list. However, Ms. Smith is a resident of the city of Buffalo; therefore, if a resident of the town of Amherst comes in 6 years later asking for an apartment [subsidy] and it becomes available, who gets it? Not Sharon Smith. The resident of Amherst would get it, and that’s one of the reasons that the Comer lawsuit was brought.39

The center brought the case of Comer v. Cisneros, which sought to address the use of local preference residency requirements by Belmont Shelter. After several years, the suit was settled in the center’s favor in 1997. The key provisions of the settlement of the Comer lawsuit are as follows:

According to Mr. Morrissey, removing the administrative barriers to moving out of the city and into the suburbs was only half the job. “Because the fact is, unless we remove the practical barriers as well, the lawsuit was all for naught, and that’s the reason that the lawsuit calls for the creation of a community mobility housing center.”41 He continued:

It is, in our view, perhaps the most critical element of [the settlement] because we realize that if you come from the center of the city of Buffalo, and want to move to Cheektowaga, you don’t know about available neighborhoods, bus routes, schools, and without that information, the fact that you theoretically have that right to do it frankly doesn’t mean much.42

 The mobility housing center will have four major components designed to increase mobility and choice:

  1. Motivational counseling. It will provide information to Section 8 recipients on the potential benefits of living in neighborhoods. Examples of potential benefits include better housing stock, better job opportunities, and better schools than can be found in the city of Buffalo.  

  2. Logistical assistance. This will provide needed information such as: Where are the available units? How do you get to them? What bus routes are they on? Where are the local schools? Churches?

  3. Readiness counseling. This will engage Section 8 recipients in skills development on such topics as: (a) What are the interviewing skills needed when trying to find an apartment? (b) What is it the landlord is looking for? (c) What does a landlord expect from a good tenant? and (d) How do you fill out rental applications?

  4. Followup assistance. It is crucial to know that the program is having a positive impact. After families move, the housing center will assist them with school applications, and in locating churches, child care, and employment.43

The housing center is critical to the success of Section 8 mobility and will reduce the sense of isolation that often accompanies a move not only to a strange neighborhood but also to a completely different environment. Mr. Morrissey stressed that the housing center needs broad-based community support. “It needs to have complete and utter credibility within the African American and Hispanic communities, and it can’t be business as usual.”44

Pursuant to the Comer settlement, in early 1998 the city of Buffalo issued a request for proposals to select an administrator for the Community Housing Center. The housing center was expected to begin operation in the fall of 1998.

Buffalo Public Housing Administrators’ Failure to Appear Before the Committee

When invited to participate in the Buffalo factfinding meeting, the directors of Buffalo’s Section 8 program and the suburban Section 8 program both declined to participate. Subsequent written requests by the Committee for information yielded only demographic and background data from one agency, the RAC, but it did not respond to substantive questions (see appendix 4). Elizabeth Huckabone, director of the Belmont Shelter Corporation, responded through a letter (see appendix 3) prepared by the attorney representing Belmont Shelter in the Comer lawsuit. The letter states that the Comer lawsuit lacks merit and that: 

My client and I take great offense in representations either in court, the hearings recently conducted under your auspices in Buffalo, or otherwise that our opposition to Mrs. Smith’s request for the available housing listings of Belmont impeded fair housing or anyone’s ability to obtain access to housing wherever they choose in the Western New York area.45

Neither director would discuss in person with the Advisory Committee the use of residency requirements, waiting lists, or quality and location of housing available. This lack of cooperation by Belmont and RAC has impeded the factfinding mission of the Committee in Buffalo.  


1 Bureau of the Census, U.S. Department of Commerce, 1990 CH–1–1B, 1990 Census of Housing, General Housing Characteristics, Metropolitan Areas, p. 69, table 4 (1993).

2  Ibid., p. 70. According to the Census data, no suburban town in Erie County has a total African American or Hispanic population in excess of 2 percent. One nonsuburban Erie County community bordering Buffalo, the city of Lackawanna, has a minority population of 12.63 percent. Ibid.

3  Bureau of the Census, U.S. Department of Commerce, 1990 CH–1–34, 1990 Census of Housing Characteristics, New York, p. 294, table 49; p. 434, table 58 (1992).

4 Approximately 68.1 percent of all occupied units in the city of Buffalo were built prior to 1940, whereas approximately 19.6 percent of all units in Erie County excluding Buffalo were built before 1940. Bureau of the Census, U.S. Department of Commerce, 1990 CH–2–34, 1990 Census of Housing, Detailed Housing Characteristics, New York, p. 225, table 66; p. 401, table 79 (1993).

5  The median income in Buffalo is about 55 percent of that in the suburban area. Bureau of the Census, U.S. Department of Commerce, 1990 CP–2–1B, 1990 Census of Population, Social and Economic Characteristics, Metropolitan Areas, p. 62, table 3 (1993).

6  The unemployment rate in 1989 was 11.6 percent for the city of Buffalo and 7 percent for the entire county of Erie (including Buffalo). Bureau of the Census, U.S. Department of Commerce, 1990 CP–2–34, 1990 Census of Population, Social and Economic Characteristics, New York, pp. 15, 17, table 2 (1993).

7  Ibid., p. 185, table 19.

8  In 1991 the waiting period for a subsidy from the city HA (the Rental Assistance Corporation) was about 9 years, while the waiting period for the suburban program (Belmont Shelter Corporation) was 12 to 30 months. This information comes from documents submitted in Comer v. Kemp, 824 F. Supp. 1113 (W.D.N.Y.).

9  Data from HUD Community 2020 Database, using FY 1996 data.

10 Bureau of the Census, U.S. Department of Commerce, PC80–1–B34, 1980 Census of Population, General Population Characteristics, New York, pp. 34–30, 34–39, table 15 (1982).  

11  This information comes from documents submitted in Comer v. Kemp, 824 F. Supp. 1113 (W.D.N.Y. 1993) (No. 89–1556C), vacated and remanded sub.nom Comer v. Cisneros, 37 F.3d 775 (2d Cir. 1994).

12  Ibid.

13  Comer v. Cisneros, 37 F.3d 775 (2d Cir. 1994).

14  Jituan James, statement  before the New York Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, factfinding meeting, Buffalo, NY, Dec. 12, 1996, transcript,  p. 71 (hereafter cited as Buffalo Transcript).

15  Ibid., p. 72.

16  Ibid., p. 68.

17  Ibid., p. 69.

18  Andriette statement, Buffalo Transcript, p. 60.

19  Ibid.

20  Ibid., p. 62.

21  Smith statement, Buffalo Transcript, p. 118.

22  Ibid.

23  Ibid., p. 115.

24  Ibid.

25  Ibid.

26  Ibid., p. 116

27  Telephone conversation with James Morrissey, Apr. 2, 1998.

28  Gehl statement, Buffalo Transcript, p. 22.

29  Ibid.

30  Ibid.

31  Ibid., p. 24.

32  Ibid., p. 25.

33  Ibid., p. 28.

34  Ibid., p. 29.

35  Andriette statement,  Buffalo Transcript, p. 57.

36  Ibid., p. 62.

37  Ibid., p. 64.

38  Ibid.

39  Morrissey statement, Buffalo Transcript, p. 105.

40  Ibid.

41  Ibid., p. 107.

42  Ibid.

43  Ibid., p. 108.

44  Ibid., p. 110.

45  Letter from Charles C. Swanekamp to Fernando A. Serpa, U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, Dec. 20, 1996, Eastern Regional Office files.