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AG James: $2.7 million in grants for Western New York to implement new strategic housing programs

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Thu, Feb 13th 2020 07:00 am

Attorney General Letitia James recently announced more than $2.7 million in grants for the cities of Buffalo, Rochester, and Niagara Falls as part of Cities for Responsible Investment and Strategic Enforcement (“Cities RISE”). The program provides municipalities the funding to launch innovative programs related to housing and strategic code enforcement. Cities RISE aims to innovatively address and transform blighted, vacant or poorly maintained problem properties through the use of housing and community data from various state agencies. 

“In the aftermath of the foreclosure crisis, families throughout Western New York are continuing the struggle of finding and maintaining quality affordable housing options,” James said. “Cities RISE is an important program that allows cities across New York to better address code enforcement policies in an effort to meet the unique needs of their communities. Using the funds secured from settlements with banks, my office will continue to work with municipalities to combat New York’s ongoing housing crisis.”

Launched in April 2017, Cities RISE advances the Office of the Attorney General’s comprehensive strategy for helping New York families and communities rebuild from the housing crisis. In the first phase of the program, 16 municipalities received a two-year subscription to a data platform designed to integrate and analyze data such as code enforcement records, tax liens, and fire and police data to innovatively address and transform blighted, vacant or poorly maintained problem properties.

Ten of the original 16 grantees were selected for phase two of the program, which began in November 2018. Phase two of the program provided cities with technical assistance to analyze city data as well as assisted the cities with community engagement to develop program ideas for their grant application. Over the last year, these municipalities have worked with Cities RISE program partners to improve their code enforcement strategies and develop new strategic programs. The cities received expert support from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation and Tolemi, a social enterprise company that created the BuildingBlocks platform used by all Cities RISE participants. Harvard and Tolemi helped municipalities leverage data and evidence in operational work and policy-making. Additionally, last May, mayors of the municipalities attended an executive education program at Harvard. The cities also worked with Hester Street, an urban planning, design and development nonprofit to develop and launch a comprehensive community engagement process.

As a part of phase three, these 10 cities were able to apply for a grant of up to $1 million to implement innovative and strategic programs related to code enforcement. 

The City of Niagara Falls will receive $882,625 for the establishment of a call-in center to streamline code enforcement response and effectiveness, the creation of a ticketing system to link code violators with other forms government services, and the development of a fund dedicated to assisting low- to moderate-income homeowners stuck in housing court primarily due to their financial status.

“The City of Niagara Falls is proud to be selected for phase three of the New York state attorney general's office Cities RISE program,” Niagara Falls Mayor Robert M. Restaino said. “The funding provided will greatly assist our city in accomplishing the goals of the attorney general for cities across New York state. On behalf of the City of Niagara Falls, I would like to thank New York State Attorney General Letitia James for her commitment to assisting improvement of communities across the state.”

The City of Buffalo, which is set to receive $953,983, will primarily use the grant to pioneer a nationally innovative approach to differentiate response to property owner-occupants who lack means to care for their homes from landlords who have demonstrated an unwillingness to fix their properties, and will capitalize a loan fund to help provide resources to local low-income property owners in need. 

“The City of Buffalo is proud of our partnership with the New York State Attorney General’s Office, Enterprise and other stakeholders who helped us secure almost $1 million in funding that will provide the resources necessary to transform our code enforcement efforts into a proactive system that improves the quality of housing and neighborhoods for low-income residents across the city,” Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown said. “The commitment of New York State Attorney General James in utilizing settlement funding to address our most important housing needs will provide vital resources to ensure that all of our residents have access to safe and healthy homes.”

The City of Rochester will receive $900,000 to fund a robust data and analytic tool to increase the capacity of code enforcement operations, establish an emergency abatement fund for those who would like to remain in their homes but lack the funds to address health and safety violations, and fund eviction prevention counseling in collaboration with the local housing authority.

“Thanks to Attorney General James and the Cities RISE program, Rochester will remain a leader in ensuring quality, affordable housing for our residents," said Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren. “These vital dollars will help prevent evictions, provide for emergency repairs and help create a property manager licensing program. Under the leadership of Tish James, the New York State Attorney General’s Office has become a trusted partner of, and proven advocate for, all those working to ensure that housing is fundamental human right.”

Enterprise Community Partners (Enterprise) a national community development intermediary that specializes in affordable housing, is overseeing the initiative.

“Enterprise is excited to support this final step in Cities RISE, the culmination of several years of hard work by the government and community leaders of participating municipalities to develop equitable, strategic code enforcement initiatives,” said Judi Kende, vice president and market leader, Enterprise Community Partners. “Enterprise is proud to partner with Attorney General James to give communities across the state the unique opportunity to improve the lives of local residents.” 

“We are excited to see these 10 grantees leverage data through the BuildingBlocks platform to improve housing code compliance, facilitate cross-agency collaboration, and launch innovative neighborhood revitalization strategies,” said Andrew Kieve, CEO and co-founder of Tolemi.

“Cities RISE demonstrates the power and potential of community-led problem solving,” said Nisha Baliga, co-executive director of Hester Street. “Hester Street was thrilled to support all 10 municipalities in engaging residents, neighborhood leaders and CBOs most impacted by code enforcement actions in the process of co-creating proactive and equitable code enforcement solutions. We’re excited about what this kind of participatory policy making can mean for the future of equitable code enforcement everywhere, and commend the Attorney General James and her office for supporting this community-driven process. ” 

“It has been a great honor for us to support mayors and their teams in making their governments more effective, efficient and equitable through innovation,” said Professor Jorrit de Jong, faculty director of Ash Center’s Government Innovations Program. “The Cities RISE program has been a superb platform to help cities build the capabilities to tackle challenges around vacant, abandoned and distressed properties. We are grateful to New York Attorney General James for the opportunity to work with 10 cities on making positive change in their communities.”

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