Artvoice: Buffalo's #1 Newsweekly
Home Blogs Web Features Calendar Listings Artvoice TV Real Estate Classifieds Contact

Next story: Seven Days: The Straight Dope From the Week That Was

No Vacancy

Vacant and abandoned properties are a drag on struggling neighborhoods. How can the city plan a solution to the problem?

Airlene Young leans back in a chair, relaxing on the porch of her Box Avenue home with two vacant lots to her right and three to her left.

“I have no homes close, so I am in the suburbs,” Young says. “I love it. Peace and quiet.”

Young has lived in the same house for the last 46 years. She has seen neighbors come and go and houses built and knocked down. When she moved in almost every lot was occupied, she says.

On Box Avenue, a street that is only two blocks long, 44 homes have been demolished, are in the process of being demolished, or are scheduled to be demolished, according to a report used by various city departments to track problem properties.

The city has been tearing down houses for years, but it has moved particularly fast since Mayor Byron Brown instituted his “5 in 5” plan after he took office in 2006. The idea was to take down 5,000 houses in five years; later, Brown added there goal of refurbishing 500 houses in five years as well. The city has demolished more than 4,000 homes at a cost of more than $61 million dollars since 2006. More than half of that money has come from New York State. Due to the ongoing budget crisis, the state is scaling back or eliminating all of the programs that have been used in the demolition process, says Janet Penska, director of the Office of Administration, Finance, Policy and Urban Affairs.

Over the same time period the city has spent $18 million on demolition out of its general fund.

“We’ve had a lot of choices as to what we use this money for, and I think this shows that we have made demolition a priority,” Penska says.

Originally, the administration anticipated that the plan would cost $100 million over five years, with $60 million coming from the state.

Penska argues that the demolition program has been slowed by unreasonable charges levied by the state. For example, the state charges the city to notify them every time they find asbestos in a building, at a rate of $2,000 per notification, a process that involves writing to both the US Environmental Protection Agency and the New York Department of Labor’s Asbestos Control Bureau, Penska says.

“To me it was just a way to balance the budget by offsetting the costs from the Department of Labor,” Penska says. “They’ve been a very difficult agency to deal with throughout this process.”

With the dwindling support from the state the city will have to find new ways to continue on with the Five in Five plan.

“You set an ambitious goal and you work to get there,” Penska says.

James Comerford, who heads the city’s inspections and permits department, is worried about what will happen with the vacant houses that he has been working to eliminate if the city is unable to find a new source of funding for his department. Where we have slowed the leak, the leak will become a full-blown gusher again shortly,” Comerford says.

His department spent about $20 million last year working to eliminate the houses that are considered the worst of the worst. The only thing standing between Buffalo and a city void of hazardous vacant buildings, Comerford said, is money.

“If I had $100 million, we could not only slow down the blight, we could stop it in its tracks,” he says.

He says that community feedback from blocks where vacant buildings have been torn down is almost always positive.

“Every time we tear a house down that is a neighborhood hazard, you wouldn’t believe the phone calls and letters that we get thanking us,” Comerford says.

The resources that Comerford is allotted allow him to address the most hazardous vacant buildings in the city, but Buffalo is so wash with these buildings that he is unable to move beyond simply prioritizing which houses pose the biggest risk to residents, emergency personnel, and his own workers.

“Sometimes it feels like the Whac-A-Mole game,” Comerford said. “You hit one and another one pops up.”

•  •  •

Tracy Krug and Kevin Coyne act as Comerford’s sheriffs. They spend their days cruising the streets of the city checking on problem properties, helping Comerford decide whether a building is in need of demolition. In Buffalo’s most blighted neighborhoods, they have become familiar faces.

“People get to know you,” Krug says. ”The first thing they ask when you get out is, ‘When are you knocking it down?’”

One afternoon this summer, Krug and Coyne pull up to a Perry Street residence where the owner has claimed in court that she still lives. The yellow house has a locked gate blocking Krug and Coyne from getting to the side door, the only way that it is safe to enter. The floor in the living room, where the front entrance is, is so weak from water damage that it might not support their weight.

Coyne takes the fence off the post with a hammer and they proceed to the side door. The weeds in the backyard grow as high as the roof of the garage.

Inside, the smell of mold is pervasive. Water has been leaking through the roof and the ceiling in the living room has been crumbling onto the floor.

“I have no idea how someone could claim that they are living in this place,” Coyne says. “Look in the basement.”

In the basement, buckets, lawn chairs, and pieces of wood float on over four feet of standing water. Only four of the steps that lead into the basement are visible. The water almost reaches the bottom of the windows.

Coyne travels upstairs to check the condition of the attic. Cardboard boxes filled with collectibles, pictures, and old newspapers are scattered about.

“All this cardboard makes this a fire hazard,” Coyne says.

That’s an important diagnosis: The danger posed by so many flammables in an unattended building may allow the Office of Inspections to expedite the house’s demolition.

Krug and Coyne exit the house, screw plywood over the side entrance, and put the fence back on its post. They return to the office to file paperwork on the Perry Street home and others that they had visited that day to be submitted to Comerford or housing court. Next week will be much the same.

•  •  •

Homeowners will leave a property for a number of reasons, says City Housing Court Judge Henry Nowak. One reason, which Nowak has called the biggest problem facing city housing, is incomplete or abandoned foreclosures.

Most foreclosures take about 10 months. They start with the bank sending a letter to the owners instructing them to vacate the premises. The bank may then give up on the foreclosure partway through the process because of the cost of litigation, or vandalism done to the house, or some other factor. The bank figures that the cost of continuing with the process and fixing the house is more than they will be able to get for the house, so they give up on the foreclosure and the original owners remain in possession of the property.

Often the bank will send a notice to the house explaining that the foreclosure process has been aborted. But the original owners think that they no longer own the house; they’re gone, and they never receive the notice. The house deteriorates, neighbors begin to complain, and the city calls the original owners into court. Nowak says most defendants in these cases are baffled.

“I can see it happening before you say a word, because the look on people’s faces is the same,” he says. “And you’re going to walk in and say ‘Judge, I don’t know why I am here.’”

When there is confusion over an abandoned foreclosure, it becomes very difficult to redevelop the house, Nowak says.

“You have a ton of repairs to make, it may require demolition, you have no insurance by that point, you still have the bank lien, but the bank has closed its files, so it’s tough for the bank to even find its file to see if they can even resolve the lien. So that becomes a very challenging issue.”

Very rarely do people in housing court see any jail time. In the seven months from March 2009 to October 2009, 700 houses were brought up to code and the owners were relieved of their penalties. Only five people were sentenced to jail time in that same period, according to Nowak.

“If I sentence a defendant to jail time, the one thing that I’m certain of is that they’re not going to be fixing that house during that jail time,” he says.

The purpose of housing court is to help the people who live around the deteriorating houses, not to jail people, Nowak says. “We fix an awful lot more houses than penalizing defendants. Which is the idea.”

•  •  •

Aaron Bartley, the executive director of People United for Sustainable Housing, has been working with the city of Buffalo to refurbish houses on the West Side for five years. PUSH aims to repair as many houses in their target area as possible, but rehabilitation is not the answer in every case, Bartley says.

“As long as there is an overarching plan, we’ve never argued that demolition is a bad thing,” Bartley says. “It’s a reality given the overstock that we have.”

There are different solutions for abandoned houses in different neighborhoods. To determine the best use of a vacant house or lot, Bartley says, mone must consider what is going on around it.

The making of a smart code

The rewriting of Buffalo's zoning code is underway

This August Camiros Ltd., an urban planning firm out of Chicago, and the Urban Design Project out of the University at Buffalo met with city officials, taking the first steps toward rewriting the zoning code for the city and establishing a comprehensive land use plan meant to serve Buffalo for the next 20 years.

Camiros, the lead consultant, will be joined by Goody Clancy of Boston, Fisher and Associates of Rochester, the Urban Design Project, and Watts Architecture and Engineering of Buffalo. The group will work with the city’s Office of Strategic Planning in an effort to design a plan that will help City Hall’s many departments manage the massive overstock of abandoned and unused land and housing that has resulted from years of suburban sprawl and declining regional population.

Brendan Mehaffy, the executive director of the Office of Strategic Planning, sees the upcoming changes to the zoning code and the land use plan as an opportunity for City Hall to engage citizens. The process should take 30 to 34 months, Mehaffy said.

“This is actually going down to the neighborhood level and asking people in the neighborhood what they see as priorities,” Mehaffy says.

The city and its consultants will take input from citizens, community groups, and activist organizations while putting together the land use plan. They will then present the plan to the public and revise it based on the feedback it generates, before submitting it to the Common Council. This land use plan will be much more specific and detailed than the Neighborhood Plan, a broad document that the city uses as a strategy now, Mehaffy says.

The consultants will be working on the new zoning code and the land use plan simultaneously, as the two documents will be closely related.

Some of the ideas for land use in the city are already being tested. Neighborhood gardens, urban agriculture, and alternative energy generation have been popping up around the city.

In some cases community gardens that include compost piles have been troublesome for neighbors who have to deal with the stench and the rodents.

“We need to create some sort of typology for what type of garden can be permitted in an area,” Mehaffy says.

The zoning code will make certain sections of the city designated areas for urban agriculture and uses such as compost gardens.

“At the end of the day I would suspect that not everybody will be happy,” Mehaffy says, “but I hope that everybody will feel like their voices have been heard.”

Anthony Armstrong, the program officer at the Buffalo chapter of the not-for-profit Local Initiatives Support Corporation, will be one of the voices helping the city understand what residents want and how other cities have dealt with similar issues.

“I think that people are ready to think about the city differently and talk about the city differently,” Armstrong says. “Given the US’s embarrassing history of urban renewal projects, whenever you start to talk about approaching things in a different way and remaking communities, it, justifiably, gets people nervous about who you are building for and who you are planning for. That’s why when LISC works in a community we’re always looking to residents first.”

When people look into buying a house, they are also looking to buy into a neighborhood. “We’ll be focused on the idea of building sustainable neighborhoods, and how you plan for and zone for neighborhoods that are viable in the long term,” Armstrong says.

The American Institute of Architects Buffalo/Western New York has been urging the city to rewrite the zoning code for several years now. The city, like many American cities, has been using archaic and convoluted codes written in the mid-20th century for far too long, says Chuck Banas, a board member of the AIA Buffalo/Western New York.

Buffalo’s zoning code consists of thousands of pages of legal jargon that an average citizen can’t understand. The goal of a form-based code is to limit the intricacies and create clear and understandable documents.

The planning and zoning codes of the 1950s were based around the automobile. Planners saw cars as a cure-all for urban problems, Banas says, and so they destroyed neighborhoods, displaced people, and used valuable waterfront property to make automobile travel easier.

“We’ve got several generations now where there have been pretty big mistakes,” Banas says. “So there is kind of a skepticism when it comes to reform, and we are hoping that we can overcome a lot of that and start proving to ourselves that we can do really good planning work again.”

The so-called “smart code” of the sort that Buffalo hopes to implement takes all people into consideration, Banas says. “There is less planning around the automobile and a greater understanding of how cities work in terms of the social, economic, fiscal transportation perspective.”

Buffalo still has a good framework, Banas says. There are many positives to build off of that weren’t destroyed in the urban renewal era of the 1940s and 1950s.

“We’ve got this amazing framework still in place,” he says. “We’re not Cleveland, we’re not Detroit, we’re not St. Louis. We didn’t make the mistakes on the scale that they did.”

justin sondel

While PUSH doesn’t make any final decisions on the fate of a vacant house, they have been working with the city to determine which houses and lots might be the best candidates for rehabilitation.

PUSH started out as adversaries to City Hall, holding regular demonstrations in Niagara Square, but they have developed a working relationship with the various agencies that are involved in housing issues. It was PUSH’s advocacy that convinced the Brown administration to amend the “5 in 5” plan to include 500 rehabs.

“Out of that came a dialogue that we felt was productive, and the mayor is reinvesting in 11 vacant units on Massachusetts Avenue,” Bartley says. “That’s going to go to construction very soon.”

The biggest challenge for the city is creating a consistent strategy for making vacant houses and lots.

“In the least dense neighborhoods, demolition is probably going to be the answer,” Bartley says. “In the most dense neighborhoods, rehabilitation is probably going to be the answer.”

Not every house can be saved, but it is important to preserve the houses that are salvageable, Bartley says. “There are definitely ways to use these vacant houses as an asset, get them into the hands of first-time buyers.”

Community gardens have been a strategy for dealing with vacant lots in the city for decades. All around town, community groups have been asking the city for help turning trash-strewn and overgrown lots into gardens, some that beautify a neighborhood and some that produce food.

When a citizen sees an empty lot with garbage blowing around, it changes the psyche of the community, says Kirk Laubenstein, a board member and former president of Grassroots Gardens, the not-for-profit that holds the lease to many of the city’s community gardens.If neighbors or block club members see an empty lot, they can go to Grassroots Gardens to apply for a lease. Grassroots Gardens then brings the property in front of the Common Council, which votes whether to approve the garden. A group that is granted a lease can then apply for grant money to use on supplies. The city also helps by allowing gardens to use water from fire hydrants.

“A community group comes to us and says, ‘We want to do it’,” Laubenstein says. “We don’t go out looking. I mean, we don’t have to.”

•  •  •

The Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo, a philanthropic organization that has been giving out grants and other aid in Buffalo for more than 80 years, is working with the city to find a block where they can build a demonstration area, a row of lots where they can create examples of different uses for vacant lots.

“You have a place where you can actually take policy makers and say, ‘Here’s what vacant lot reclamation can look like,’ and you can provide a number of different examples,” says Cara Matteliano, vice president for programs at the Community Foundation.

Four years ago, Assemblyman Sam Hoyt introduced land-banking legislation modeled on a program adopted in Flint, Michigan. His original bill passed both the State Senate and Assembly, but was vetoed by Governor David Paterson. On his second try, the bill passed in the State Senate but has yet to make it through the Assembly.

Land-banking is a way of easing the financial burden of managing vacant, city-owned property. The city would create a central repository for all vacant houses and lots. The city’s real estate department would try to sell houses and lots to people looking to develop the land in accordance with the new zoning codes and land use plan the city is drafting. Any taxes collected after a property is sold would be split between the city’s general fund and the land bank.

“We’ve got to be looking for other ways to deal with the abandoned housing crisis that doesn’t necessarily entail tens of millions of dollars a year,” Hoyt says.

Dan Kildee, the president of the Center for Community Progress, helped Hoyt write the legislation. As the treasurer of Genesee County, Michigan, Kildee created the Genesee County Land Bank to help Flint deal with blight and abandonment. That land bank has become a national model.

“Basically what the New York Land Bank Act is about is to get communities back into the position to control their own destiny by controlling the use of their worst properties,” Kildee says.

In Flint the county was able to take control of problem properties and get them out of the hands of absentee landlords and house-flipping, out-of-state investors. By spending $3 million demolishing more than 400 homes instead of attempting to collect the $2.5 million in taxes on the properties, Flint raised property values around the problem houses by $112 million, according to a study conducted by the Public Policy Department at Michigan State University.

Hoyt’s bill would allow New York’s municipalities to take control of the worst properties and reduce the effect of those properties on the surrounding environment, Kildee says.

“A land bank would allow Buffalo, for example, to regulate its land use by not forcing the market to accept a property it cannot absorb,” Kildee says, “but banking it for some future use under the notion that someday we can find a use for it that the market can absorb.”

In 2006 Buffalo was one of seven cities to be part of a study funded by the National Vacant Properties Campaign, a not-for-profit that studies abandoned housing issues. Joe Schilling, a professor of urban affairs at Virginia Tech, worked on the study called Blueprint Buffalo.

Part of the problem in Buffalo is the many competing private and political factions involved in vacant property reclamation, Schilling said.

“That’s no fault of Buffalo or the State of New York per se, but it is something that could be easily remedied, is to be able to streamline the allocation of these plans,” Schilling says.

Schilling hoped that the Buffalo Blueprint Report would serve as a plan for the city to use as a model, similar to what the Brown administration is trying to achieve with the new zoning code and land use plan being produced by outside consultants starting this summer. Schilling says that Cleveland use many of the ideas in a report he worked on there in 2005.

“When we released the blueprint report in 2006, I thought Buffalo would be the first city, or would be ahead of Cleveland, in its path to reclaiming vacant properties…Cleveland is now leading not only Buffalo but, I think, a lot of the other cities in transition in their efforts to put in place the sort of systems to deal with this sort of reclamation,” Schilling says.

•  •  •

Back on Box Avenue, Airlene Young gazes out at a vacant lot where the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority has been dumping dirt from a nearby project.

She likes some of the ideas for land use that have been discussed by the city and neighborhood groups. The idea of having a small windmill farm in one of the lots near her house is appealing, Young says.

While the city works toward plan for the future of its vacant land and houses, she will continue to enjoy her extra space. She likes to sit on her porch and watch for some of the wildlife that walks onto the adjacent lots. Recently she has been seeing deer that come down from the train tracks that run beyond the empty land to the east.

Young is used to the sound of the trains passing by, and she doesn’t consider them a disruption of the quiet that she has come to enjoy since the houses around her came down.

“People make trouble,” Young said. “Trains don’t.”

AV contributor Justin Sondel’s blog is From the Ruins. Photographs courtesy David Torke at fix buffalo.

blog comments powered by Disqus