May 26


City Hall’s paper thin fair housing report

Filing on Buffalo's efforts to enforce its fair housing law — a tool to combat segregation — illustrates how little the Brown administration is doing

Last week Buffalo’s Fair Housing Office filed its first activity report with the Common Council since April 2019. 

The new report is five pages long. Given its lack of content, it probably could have been shorter. 

It was just the third report the office has filed in the 16 years since the city adopted its fair housing ordinance, which created the office and requires it to report annually on its efforts to protect renters from discrimination.

Buffalo’s law is a local affirmation of the 1968 federal Fair Housing Act, which outlawed discriminatory practices that contributed to racial segregation. 

Segregation is a persistent issue in Buffalo, one of the most racially divided cities in the country. It’s a factor that helped attract a white supremacist, intent on killing people of color: He knew where to find his intended victims.

Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram & YouTube

Much of the new report seemed to be a copy-and-paste job from the office’s last filing to the Council, three years ago, which itself was largely cribbed from a report the office submitted in October 2018. 

All three include long, nearly identical lists of institutions and organizations to which the city’s fair housing officer, Harold Cardwell, gave presentations. All three also feature a list of “Clean Sweep” operations in which the office’s literature was distributed to residents, as well as some boilerplate language describing the office’s mission.

The October 2018 report, like the current one, covered three years, reaching back to 2015 when Mayor Byron Brown appointed Cardwell to the post. That report — the office’s first ever — was generated at the request of Common Council President Darius Pridgen, who demanded an account of the office’s activities after Investigative Post reported on the Brown administration’s failure to enforce the city’s fair housing law.

In July of that year, Investigative Post’s Charlotte Keith reported that the city had done “little to enforce” the city’s fair housing ordinance, adopted in 2006, the first year of Byron Brown’s tenure as mayor. 

Buffalo’s fair housing law is meant to “to protect the rights of its citizens to equal access to housing … [and] ensure housing choices for all residents.” The law makes it illegal for a landlord to turn down a prospective renter because of race, religion, nationality, age, gender identity or sexual orientation, among other reasons.

It forbids landlords from turning away a tenant due to “source of income.” That means it’s illegal to refuse to rent to a person because they receive public assistance, such as federal Section 8 rent vouchers.

Subscribe to our free weekly newsletter

Investigative Post reported that landlords often refused to accept federal rental assistance vouchers, in violation of the law. Some landlords even advertised their unwillingness to rent to tenants using vouchers. Tenants’ complaints often languished in the Fair Housing Office, Keith reported.

“In fact, records show that city officials allowed many cases to sit, unresolved, for years — then argued they couldn’t do anything because the statute of limitations had expired,” Keith wrote.

Investigative Post examined cases referred to the Fair Housing Office by Housing Opportunities Made Equal, a nonprofit advocacy organization. She was able to find only one instance in 12 years in which the city had taken legal action against a landlord HOME reported to the city. “[A]nd then only recently, after we began asking about the lack of enforcement,” Keith wrote.

“The enforcement of this ordinance has been wholly insufficient and is a slap in the face to hardworking, lower-income families,” DeAnna Eason, HOME’s executive director, told Investigative Post in 2018. “This demonstrates that fair housing is not a priority of this local government.”

Last fall, Investigative Post revisited the issue and found some improvement. Since Investigative Post’s 2018 report, the city had resolved four cases referred by HOME, recovering more than $19,000 from landlords found to have violated the law. That’s more than the city accomplished in the law’s first 12 years combined, according to HOME.

However, Eason told Investigative Post, HOME and other advocates are now more likely to sidestep the city’s Fair Housing Office and seek assistance instead from the state Division of Human Rights or Erie County, which passed its own fair housing ordinance in 2018.

“The county process is really better,” Eason told Investigative Post last September. “It provides more protection for the city of Buffalo — not just the city of Buffalo, but for the county, obviously.”

Keith’s reporting noted the post of fair housing officer had been frequently vacant prior to Cardwell being assigned the title. Technically, Cardwell is a compliance officer of the Buffalo Urban Renewal Agency. He earned $60,380 in 2020, according to state payroll records.

According to Cardwell’s new report, his office received 6,488 calls and 51 walk-in visits between April 1, 2019, and March 31, 2022. In the prior three-year period, the office reported receiving 3,879 calls and 217 walk-ins.

In the last three years, Cardwell claimed, his office assisted 138 tenants facing “unjustified eviction notices or illegal lockouts” in City Housing Court. In the prior three-year period, the reported number was 127.

Cardwell reported his office reviewed 28 complaints of “discrimination based on race, color, religion, national origin, sex, disability, source of income and/or familial status.” According to the report, 12 cases were “conciliated,” with landlords compelled to pay $37,500 in fines or restitution to tenants. 

The other 16 cases, Cardwell wrote, were referred to the city’s law department for litigation.

Cardwell did not respond to a request from Investigative Post to review the numbers in the report. Cardwell told Investigative Post in 2018 that the office’s complaint process works well and disagreed that some cases sat unresolved, but declined to discuss specifics.

The Fair Housing Office report was referred to the Council’s Community Development Committee, which met Tuesday. Cardwell attended. He attributed his failure to file required annual reports in 2020 and 2021 to the pandemic. 

He offered to answer questions from Council members about the report or the Fair Housing Office. 

There were no questions.