Buffalo’s Inrem Property Auction is being held next week from the 29th through the 31st starting at 9:30 each day at the Buffalo Convention Center, 153 Franklin Street. Registration starts at 7:30 AM. The properties being auctioned were seized for non-payment of taxes or other violations. Often the buildings were simply abandoned and left to the tax payers to deal with. The auction is an attempt to get the buildings back on the tax rolls with as little fuss as possible. The auction list has a jaw dropping 4392 properties cataloged. Many of these properties will not be sold and will eventually be torn down. Many will be sold but will find their way back on the auction list. The vast majority that do sell will go to their new owner’s for outrageously low prices. It is a great opportunity for investment in Buffalo.
Unfortunately, these outrageously low prices tend to attract naive investors who do not know what they are getting into or investors looking for quick profit with minimal to no investment. There is no sugar-coating the vacancy and abandonment problem in Buffalo. These auction properties are overwhelmingly in Buffalo’s poorest neighborhoods. The buildings are typically over 100 years old and have had little to no investment in more than a generation. There are many good buildings in this group that can give many more years of useful service. But, good owners are needed with the ability to overcome the very real pitfalls. The city does not allow you to view the inside of the properties before you place your bids. This means bidding is risky without proper experience and preparation. However, valuable gems can be had at bargain prices by those willing and able to take on the challenge.
Bernice Radle of BuffaLove Development tells of her and her partner Jason Wilson’s first experience with a sight-unseen auction house that they bought:
I have spent sometime blogging about our progress at 351 Massachusetts Ave, a single family house on the West Side of Buffalo. When we bought it, we honestly thought it could be a goner! However, given that we are preservation focused, we saw through the deterioration, the water leaks, the crumbling foundation and that giant blocks of cascading ice on the interior of the house. Today, we now know that buildings can rise from near death with a lot of love, time and energy…
The house is now well on its way to being a comfortable new home for someone. She notes that the foundation fix was surprisingly simple and the indoor ice waterfall is gone. Bernice has been blogging regularly about their experiences as rookie developers and with preservation in Buffalo in general. She brings a lot of valuable insight to the process of reviving vacant property. Bernice was also a featured speaker at the recent TedX Buffalo. Her Ted Talk focused on what she called the Vacancy Vortex, a place where perfectly good properties are trapped in a bureaucratic death spiral. A system designed for nothing to happen while a property sinks into oblivion. Her talk can be seen here. Skip to the 20 minute mark if you want to bypass the other speakers.
2006 Niagara Street
This gets to the heart of Buffalo’s vacancy problem and why it is so frustrating. Many of these vacant properties don’t need to be vacant. They get that way through incompetence and they stay that way through systemic incompetence. The longer these good properties stay vacant the higher the chance they will become unsalvageable and the greater the risk that they start to pull the surrounding properties down with them in a chain reaction. Bernice alerted me to this vacant house at 2006 Niagara Street in Blackrock. She notes that it is right across from Sun International Restaurant, has double doors, stained glass and lots of natural light. If you look in through the front door you can see that it is loaded with natural wood work and a beautiful staircase in good condition. It is also just a half block from the Niagara River!
Chris Brown of the Kleinhans Neighborhood Community Association also alerted me to a special auction house at 265 Whitney Street on the lower West Side that needs to be saved. Chris has been actively working for many years to save irreplaceable buildings in Kleinhans / West Allentown / Fargo neighborhood. This part of the city is now seeing real growth for the first time in decades. That growth is being fueled by the buildings saved from destruction because of the foresight and hard work of neighborhood preservation activists. Now that the western edge of Allentown is gaining some stability is time to focus even further west to streets like Whitney and to buildings like this charmer.
265 Whitney shows signs of disinvestment and abuse but looks to be in relatively good condition. I don’t know what its interior is like but the exterior holds a remarkable amount of its original detail including original clapboard and intricate arched window trim. Chris says notes that the house was built for a lake captain named James Reardon circa 1870. He goes on to point out that this was around the time of the laying of the first Trans Atlantic telegraph cable. Architectural historians Olef Shelgren and Austin Fox claimed the “rope” or “cable” molding seen in Allentown homes was part of the Trans Atlantic pop art phase. The the rope or cable like window trim seen on the arched windows of this house may have been a representation of the twisted strands of the pioneering ocean cable. Chris notes that the successful completion of the cable project inspired new decorative motifs in pottery, art, etcetera and that cable moldings were all the rage at the time. These moldings were once very common in Buffalo but alas are now quite rare.
Hopefully these two houses and many more land in the right hands. If not their prospects are dim. There is no reason to lose these treasures because of a broken system. You have seen what an ugly duckling can change into. Buffalo cannot afford to lose these irreplaceable buildings any longer.