This is the letter I am sending the Buffalo Green Code developers regarding the human service facilities. You can send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. Feel free to plagiarize ideas, but I do request you don’t take the entire letter as people don’t read block letters.
As a commentor noted in the last post, this ordinance exists in the current Buffalo code. I asked around about the backstory regarding this code, and was told that it was a temporary ordinance that simply never expired. It was supposed to be temporary pending a study on non-profit concentration that was never accomplished.
Dear Green Code Developers:
By an large, you are to be commended for taking a large and unwieldy land use code and condensing it into a briefer, largely more logical set of regulations. To that end, thank you for the time and diligence that you have put into developing it.
I write with specific criticisms regarding the Human Service Facilities permit regulations. I am disappointed to see a temporary ordinance from the late 1990s, which was not based on evidence or clearly defined terms, further codified into the green code. This is a blatantly discriminatory regulation, and I am surprised that it has not been challenged legally in the time that it was enacted.
The language is vague and sets an unreasonable burden to human service providers, some of whom tend to be low-cash operations. For instance, I cannot find a study or evidence that there is a “concentration” of human service facilities. This would be a relatively easy study for the city to do (take addresses, put them in GIS), except for one facet: you would have to define what you consider a concentration. Is it three such facilities per block? Is it three such facilities per half square mile? Is it three such facilities per city? As a concentration is not defined, an over-concentration is not defined either. (My attempts to search for the topic pulled up academic concentrations – this appears to be language unique to the city of Buffalo and as far as established by the city, is not informed by any best practice). Such vague language gives a project’s detractors grounds for rejecting it without providing a concrete vision for what the city is attempting to accomplish.
I am also concerned that “adverse impact” is vacuous language that conveys neither vision of what the city wants to be, nor examples of what the city is trying to avoid. What is considered adverse? Neighbors in the Beaumaris/Woodette/Elmview neighborhood considered the development of a former factory into the now much-loved Wegmans as having a potentially adverse impact on the neighborhood, because they preferred vacant land behind their property. Some folks consider living near a park undesirable, because they do not want a place for people to congregate near their home. My point is that without a definition, “adverse impact” can simply mean “change” and anyone who is opposed to any change in their neighborhood would use that line to deter any development. That the language is used, as far as I read, exclusively with Human Service Facilities is troubling to me.
In addition, suggesting that such a facility cannot change a neighborhood (which is what the “adverse impact” language does) and also stating that such facilities cannot be placed in neighborhoods that wouldn’t be changed due to a preexisting presence of human service facilities suggests that the writers of the code wish to make the entire city of Buffalo unsuitable for these facilities. The way the code is written, a human service facility may be rejected due to undefined proximity to another facility, or because a neighborhood has none. This is troubling to me. 5,754 people were homeless in Erie County in 2013, 81% of them in the city of Buffalo. The poverty rate for children is 50.6%. Buffalo has problems with hunger, homelessness, and poverty. This ordinance targets all of the facilities which serve the most vulnerable populations, and makes it difficult for them to exist. Our poverty and hunger problems will not cease because we are not coping with them. There is no other community that we can push our vulnerable on. We need to solve our own social problems because they will not go away, and threaten the revitalization of Buffalo as a whole. Hungry people make poor potential employees.
I fear that the process to create such a facility is overly burdensome to some of the providers covered. For instance, food pantry and soup kitchen operations vary from well-funded, well-staffed, somewhat sophisticated operations to volunteer-run efforts sponsored by churches or other organizations whose primary endeavors are not soup kitchens or food pantries. These are low-cash operations that can do a lot of good for a neighborhood’s struggling residents. I would hate to see a church group dissuaded from starting a Saturday morning meal operation from their kitchen because no one feels they have the savvy to appeal to the planning board, the city council, and the zoning board of appeals. No other permit would require so many governing bodies. I noticed that state entities were exempt, but churches were not. Homeless shelters also run the gamut from professional organizations to volunteer-run ones. All of them are full in the city of Buffalo, and all play a role in meeting our state-constitutional requirement to provide shelter to all homeless residents. When they are full, the county places homeless people in hotels at significant expense. It is cheaper to the taxpayer to have shelters. The city’s residents still pay county taxes.
Nonprofits are like any other business entity in that they choose their location based on the place they can best operate logistically and efficiently serve their clients. Their clients are among the neediest, most vulnerable residents of the city of Buffalo. This ordinance creates criteria that is neither friendly to the recovery of their clients, nor does it facilitate the service facility’s function.
The city of Buffalo is participating in a consolidated plan to end chronic homelessness by 2016. This requires having beds and facilities to house the chronically homeless, who tend to have higher medical needs. The city is working against its other goals by making such efforts more difficult and costly for our community’s non-profits to pursue. We are getting close to success, and it would be a shame if the codification of this temporary ordinance erased that possibility.
Overall, it seems obvious to me that the human services facilities permit is unwise, unclear, and counter-productive to developing Buffalo into a prosperous city. All prosperous cities still have poverty and hunger. It is a consequence of capitalism. The successful ones (Seattle, San Francisco, New York City) have extensive infrastructure to cope with the problem. I fear that further codifying this ordinance is a step in the wrong direction. In the least case, it should be revised to remove language of concentration, specify and define its terms, and the procedure should be revised to include fewer governing bodies.
In the best case, human service facilities would be treated like any other business and given an identical permitting process to other potentially disruptive developments such as bars, restaurants, and commercial businesses.
Thank you for your time,