NYT: Vacant Homes in Buffalo

It’s interesting how much the NYT has ramped up coverage of Upstate cities, especially Buffalo. In Today’s NYT:

NYT Graphic

Vacant Houses, Scourge of a Beaten-Down Buffalo

Published: September 13, 2007

BUFFALO — In this city beaten down by decades of factory closings and residential exodus, the razing of thousands of vacant houses is being touted as a sign of progress.

Gangs, squatters and teenagers have been burning down hundreds of houses a year, straining the meager resources of the Police and Fire Departments. Some of the properties have been turned into crack dens and places to stash guns and drugs. A few have been booby-trapped or had their floors ripped out by scavengers looking for pipes they can sell to metal dealers.

The burned-out and boarded-up buildings, which are visible on nearly every street in east Buffalo, have deterred even the most pioneering investors from moving in.

So Mayor Byron W. Brown recently unveiled a $100 million five-year plan to rip down 5,000 houses, about half of all the vacant houses in the city, which ranks second only to St. Louis in the percentage of vacant properties per capita nationwide.

The best way to save Buffalo, he reasons, is to mow down the buildings on these properties — starting with the ones deemed the worst fire hazards or those near schools — and encourage church groups, entrepreneurs and neighbors to build homes in their place.

“We have a real sense of urgency,” said the mayor, who was elected in November 2005 but has grappled with vacant houses as a city councilman and a state senator. “If we do not address the decline in these neighborhoods, we will see more people losing hope and faith in the city’s ability to fix the problem, and more people leaving.”

Demolitions are nothing new in Buffalo — buildings on more than 2,000 vacant properties have been destroyed since 2000 — but Mayor Brown has determined that more must be done, because the city can no longer afford to prop up eyesores and death traps.

His office estimates that each abandoned house costs the city an average of $20,060 over five years in lost taxes, debris removal, inspections and policing. So far this year, 41 percent of all fires in Buffalo were in vacant buildings, and more than 90 percent of all arson cases involved abandoned houses.

Making matters worse, the price to demolish a house has been rising because of stiffer regulations on the handling of asbestos. The city spends an average of $16,040 to take down a house with asbestos inside, 31 percent more than two years ago. Last year, Buffalo tore down 200 homes with $3 million in state aid it received for demolitions.

Buffalo officials plan to submit an application by the end of the month seeking $20 million from a state program called, paradoxically, Restore NY. And the city plans to match any donations earmarked for demolition from businesses and philanthropists.

For years, Buffalo took an ad hoc approach to demolitions, sometimes knocking down houses when it received block grants for redevelopment or when the houses were clearly fire hazards. Many residents — especially those who live near dilapidated houses — said they were encouraged by the mayor’s efforts.

Luan Nguyen, who has lived in the Broadway-Fillmore neighborhood for seven years, said he was relieved to see a 22-ton excavator demolish two rundown houses on the corner of Lombard and Peckham Streets.

“I’m so happy to see it done,” said Mr. Nguyen, who stood with his back to a weed-filled lot where several other houses once stood. “No one has lived there for five years, and my kids play around here. I worry about that.”

The two houses recently torn down were of no particular architectural or historic value. But preservationists, planners and community activists worry that the city, in its rush to pull down so many others, is destroying buildings that could be rehabilitated and attract other development.

“One of the primary critiques of this bingo-scorecard approach to demolitions is that there’s no integrated plan why certain properties should be knocked down or not,” said David Torke, who runs Fix Buffalo Today, a blog devoted to preserving the city’s east side (fixbuffalo.blogspot.com). “We should operate like a medical doctor on the battlefield, and save what can be saved.”

Buffalo is not alone in wrestling with how to save itself through selective destruction. Philadelphia’s efforts led to a mini-renaissance in recent years; Detroit has had more mixed results. Youngstown, Ohio, is debating whether to bulldoze entire neighborhoods and turn them into parks.

But in many ways, Buffalo faces higher hurdles than other cities. According to census figures released last month, nearly 30 percent of Buffalo’s residents live in poverty, a rate surpassed only by Detroit among the nation’s largest cities. As a result, large numbers of homes continue to be abandoned, and there is not enough money around to build new ones in their place.

“We see a direct correlation between Buffalo’s poverty rate and physical blight,” said Aaron Bartley, the director of PUSH Buffalo, a nonprofit group focused on vacant housing. Nearly 80 percent of the city’s neighborhoods, he said, have at least some vacant homes. “Abandoned housing reinforces crime,” he added.

Buffalo also has had a relatively hard time attracting the high-paying jobs that draw newcomers or provide current residents with the extra cash to fix up rundown homes.

“Buffalo can’t be a Philly right now,” said Joe Schilling, the associate director of the Green Regions Initiative in the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech University. The city, he said, “is a lot more isolated.”

Over the past two years, private companies have spent or announced plans to invest $1.5 billion on offices, stores and homes in Buffalo, said Richard M. Tobe, the city’s commissioner of economic development, permit and inspection services. An additional $2.1 billion in public works projects are on the table, too.

But it is unclear how much of that money is trickling into hard-hit neighborhoods. On some corners, pocket parks serve as lonely place holders until money can be found for an alternative use. On many streets, occupied homes are sprinkled among dilapidated ones and empty lots.

The city has set up programs to provide low-interest loans and to help with closing costs. And several community development corporations are building subsidized housing, including a handful of two-story houses near the corner of Elsie Place and Ada Place that cost $130,000 to build but sold for $70,000.

“Two years ago, this place looked entirely different,” said the Rev. Richard A. Stenhouse, pastor at the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church and director of the Bethel community development corporation, which has built more than a dozen homes. “We’re not trying to do everything ourselves, but neighborhood by neighborhood, it will be a better city.”

Other homes are being refurbished on Coe Place, around the corner from Artspace Buffalo, a factory that has been transformed into affordable housing for artists. Jennifer Russo and her partner, Roy Cunningham, bought a Queen Anne-style home on Coe Place and fixed its roof three years ago, and they spent $6,000 more to buy the house next door.

“It’s so inexpensive to live here,” said Ms. Russo, who went to school in Buffalo and returned after several years of teaching in Rockland County.

But in many cases, the cost of fixing foundations, roofs and interiors can exceed the value of the houses, even those bought at auction from the city for $1; this makes it difficult for would-be buyers to obtain bank loans. The median assessed value of housing in the Broadway-Fillmore neighborhood was $14,000 last year, according to the Federal Reserve Bank in Buffalo.

“Half of Buffalo looks like New Orleans after the storm,” said Mark Goldman, author of “City on the Edge,” a history of Buffalo. “The city needs to turn the whole area into a great forest. We can’t afford to keep the infrastructure.”

Mayor Brown bristled at suggestions that he might have to shut down blocks that have little hope of being revitalized. But his commissioner of administration, finance, policy and urban affairs, Janet Penksa, acknowledged that “the reality of this development is it’s slow.”

“There is no silver bullet in this kind of work,” she said.

In the meantime, the city is trying to speed the pace of boarding up vacant houses and finding candidates for demolitions through housing court. It now takes about four days to get a house boarded up, down from two weeks a couple of years ago.

But drug dealers, gang members and squatters sometimes try to hold their ground, so Mike Cacciatore and his “clean and seal” crew of city employees travel with Lisa Holloway, a police officer, for protection.

On a recent day, the team zeroed in on Houghton Street, where they boarded up five houses, several of which sat next to empty lots. Inside No. 62, which had been vacant for several months, doors were torn off their hinges and drawers were pulled out of cabinets. The floor was covered with clothing, mattresses, broken glass, a weed cutter and a phone book, opened to a page with instructions on calling 911.

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