SPECIAL REPORT: ABANDONED HOMES
Buffalo wants to tear down its abandoned homes
Critics say the demolition effort is destined to fail, lacks plans for renovation
Second of three parts
By Phil Fairbanks NEWS STAFF REPORTER
Updated: 07/07/08 2:50 PM
(Buffalo wants to tear down 5,000 vacant houses in the next five years.)
(“All of a sudden, it was down. It’s too bad. The building had a lot of potential, a lot of character.” Peter Roetzer, who tried to buy a vacant house from the city before it was torn down)
(West Side residents hold a protest in front of a city-owned house at 288 Hudson St.)
(“There’s no plan. Their strategy is a demolition-only strategy. There’s no sense of what should be saved.” Catherine Schweitzer, Baird Foundation)
(“We’re targeting the worst. We’re convinced those structures must go. There’s really no choice.” Mayor Byron Brown about 5,000 houses the city plans to demolish)
(A vacant house on Ruhland Avenue bears markings on the condition of the interior.)
Peter Roetzer stumbled across the building at 454 Rhode Island St. during a tour of West Side homes last year. What some saw as a run-down, vacant house — a blight on the neighborhood — Roetzer saw as an intriguing brick structure full of character.
The Amherst construction contractor liked it so much that he offered the owner $3,000, with the intention of spending another $100,000 or more to fix it up.
Eight months later, the house was gone, demolished at a cost of $20,000. The owner? City Hall.
“All of a sudden, it was down,” Roetzer said. “It’s too bad. The building had a lot of potential, a lot of character.”
Housing activists say Roetzer’s tale — he and the city differ on who dropped the ball — speaks volumes about the failures of Buffalo’s strategy for dealing with its growing vacant housing crisis.
There is too much demolition, critics say, and too little effort at saving and reusing one of the city’s best assets — its low-cost housing.
“There’s no plan,” said Catherine Schweitzer of the Baird Foundation, a Buffalo group that the city approached for money to help pay for the demolitions. “Their strategy is a demolition-only strategy. There’s no sense of what should be saved.”
An hour down the Thruway, Rochester city officials are using a different strategy — saving, fixing and reselling vacant homes.
Every year, like clockwork, Rochester acquires and repairs 50 to 60 vacant homes and then sells them to first-time homebuyers.
Buffalo, a city with an even bigger vacant-housing problem, revamps an average of about seven homes a year.
“The numbers don’t lie,” said Aaron Bartley of PUSH — People United for Sustainable Housing — Buffalo, a West Side community group at the forefront of the housing crisis here.
Buffalo’s answer to its vacant housing problems is to tear the buildings down, rather than fix them up, a strategy many think is destined to fail.
Barely a year old, the city’s high-profile demolition effort — the goal of which is to tear down 5,000 homes in five years — is coming under attack. And the critics range from grass-roots neighborhood groups to the mainstream philanthropic community.
“Right now, demolitions are scattershot,” said Michael Clarke, director of the Local Initiatives Support Corp. in Buffalo, a nonprofit group studying the city’s vacant-housing crisis.
“There’s no systematic, thought-out approach. There’s no effort at making demolitions part of a larger redevelopment strategy.”
‘No choice,’ Brown says
No one disputes the need to tear down vacant homes in Buffalo. The question rub is how many and where, and what many see as the city’s haphazard, willy-nilly approach.
“People are calling for these demolitions, begging for them,” Mayor Byron
W. Brown said. “You have to understand these buildings are often a nightmarish situation for a neighborhood.”
Brown has made demolition — the “5 in 5” plan is his term for it — the focal point of his strategy for dealing with the city’s vacancy problem, now the third worst in the nation.
Buffalo is home to at least 12,000 vacant buildings and maybe as many as 18,000 if you accept estimates from the 2006 census.
“We’re targeting the worst,” Brown said of the 5,000 homes he wants to demolish in five years. “We’re convinced those structures must go. There’s really no choice.”
The mayor is by no means alone in suggesting that thousands of houses need to come down, or in arguing that residents have suffered too long with the consequences.
“The city is doing everything it can,” said Mark P. Reed, the Buffalo firefighter who nearly died while fighting a fire in a vacant house on Wende Street last year.
Reed, who later lost a leg because of his injury, may be the poster boy for what’s wrong with Buffalo’s vacant buildings.
Last year alone, 60 percent of the city’s arsons were set at vacant and abandoned buildings. Even worse, 27 firefighters were injured while battling those fires.
“They know the dangers,” Reed said of city officials. “They’re the same dangers facing people living on those streets, the same dangers facing kids in those neighborhoods.”
It’s a compelling tale, and arsons are just one chapter of the story.
People who live near these houses, many of them owned by City Hall, tell horror stories about drug use, vandalism and violence.
Sometimes, the houses even double as dumping grounds. Over the past two years, at least seven dead bodies, some of them crime victims, have been discovered in or around vacant buildings in Buffalo.
Patricia Almodovar, the state’s top affordable-housing official, thinks Brown is on the right track and is quick to remind people that the first-term mayor inherited the city’s housing crisis.
She also knows that not everyone in Buffalo is happy with the city’s approach. That’s why the state is working closely with groups like PUSH.
“We’re sensitive to the criticism,” Almodovar said.
Late last fall, at a closed-door meeting, Brown met with the city’s wealthiest philanthropists and asked them for a no-strings-attached donation of $2.5 million to help with the demolitions.
The answer wasn’t a flat out “no,” but Brown walked away empty-handed, one more sign that Buffalo’s answer to its vacant-housing crisis is viewed by many as shortsighted and heavy-handed.
“We are demolishing the very places that could revitalize the city,” the Baird Foundation’s Schweitzer said.
Publicly, the philanthropy community — more than eight foundations were at the November meeting with Brown — say the city’s request is still active.
Privately, they’ll acknowledge that without a more comprehensive approach, providing the money is unlikely.
“They wanted us to just give them a check,” said Robert Gioia, head of the Oishei Foundation. “We don’t work that way.”
Brown is quick to note that his “5 in 5” plan — which is on track to tear down its first 1,000 homes this year — has been lauded by the people who live each day with the crime and blight that comes with vacant property.
“I don’t think they have any concept or understanding of what conditions people are living with,” the mayor said of the foundations’s heads. “I would invite them to take a tour with me of some of these properties and see the magnitude of the problem.”
No one questions the links between vacant housing and crime, or the impact these houses have on a neighborhood. The criticism of Brown’s approach is more about what City Hall isn’t doing.
For many, it prompts begs a question: Can City Hall deal with the magnitude of its vacant housing crisis?
“Categorically, the answer is no,” Bartley said.
The city doesn’t have the staff or strategy to deal with a problem as big as vacant housing, he said. He also thinks the Brown administration suffers from “clinical paranoia” when it comes to dealing with outside groups, like PUSH, that could help.”
‘City has no plan’
There’s a sense that Buffalo needs to focus, not just on tearing down buildings, but also on what will take their place once they’re gone.
In some neighborhoods, it might be rehabilitated housing. In others, it might be green space.
“We don’t think ahead,” said Michele Johnson, a neighborhood liaison to Buffalo’s Housing Court. “The demolitions are all scattershot. Obviously, the city has no plan.”
City officials bristle at the suggestion that their demolitions are unfocused or that they’re closed to alternatives such as rehabilitation or land banking, a system of acquiring large chunks of property for redevelopment.
“The mayor’s strategy is much more than just demolitions,” said Richard Tobe, former commissioner of economic development, permits and inspection services.
To make his point, Tobe, who has since been let go by the city, pointed to two major East Side projects where demolitions are just one piece of a larger redevelopment plan.
One of them, Crescent Village, was spurred by dozens of Muslim families moving into the neighborhood around the Darul-Uloom Mosque at Sobieski and Sycamore streets.
The 16-block project started with the targeted demolition of vacant, derelict properties but includes plans to acquire, repair and resell other vacant homes.
The Crescent Village recipe also calls for other ingredients, most notably new housing and apartments, as well as home-improvement grants for low-income homeowners who are already living there.
“No one aspect is a silver bullet,” said Marlies Wesolowski, director of the Matt Urban Center, the East Side group overseeing the Crescent Village project. “The fabric of the Broadway-Fillmore community is so threadbare, we need multiple approaches.”
Even now, long before the real work is under way, the neighborhood is showing concrete signs of a turnaround. One of the most dramatic is the presence of seven Muslim doctors now living in and around nearby Sweet Avenue, once a hotbed of drugs and violence.
“This was an abandoned neighborhood,” said Dr. Zulkharnain, one of the first to move there. “People were afraid to come here. Now, our ladies can walk at night. It’s a much safer place to be.”
Peter Roetzer wanted to be part of the neighborhood turnaround on Rhode Island Street, but his dream ended when City Hall tore down the building he wanted to buy.
City officials say the house was demolished because Roetzer never responded to their request for a formal rehabilitation and financing plan. Neighborhood leaders say it was City Hall that dropped the ball and that a top city official assured them Roetzer’s purchase would be approved.
“This is typical,” said Harvey Garrett, executive director of the West Side Collaborative. “It’s just one more example of our neighborhood trying to work with city officials on saving a house and getting no help at all.”
Next: Youngstown, Ohio, is planning to shrink, not grow. What are other Rust Belt cities doing to combat their vacant housing crises? firstname.lastname@example.org