Author: Craig Spangler
As Buffalo’s resurgence becomes accepted fact, two narratives have emerged as sub plots. While at opposite ends of the spectrum, the correlation between these issues is undeniable. The “I am priced out of Buffalo” story has received a lot of main stream media coverage. It seems as though when summer hits, and the real estate market heats up. We get annual stories about young educated people looking to buy homes in the City of Buffalo, but just cannot afford to make it work. On the flipside we have the “what about the rest of the city” narrative, complete with snarky jabs about how Canalside didn’t fix Broadway-Fillmore. There are many levels to both of these arguments, but I want to concentrate on how they are intermixed.
First let’s get something out of the way, few of those I talk to, or read about, are actually priced out of the City of Buffalo. Over the past five years because of the huge rise in home prices, many people, especially young millennials looking for their first homes, have been priced out of the Elmwood Village and Hertel Avenue areas. These are two very small portions of Buffalo. The majority of the city has a median list price well below $100k. Chances are if you are priced out of Buffalo, you’ve priced yourself out with your parameters.
This recent Reddit post sums up the problem, many literally only view Buffalo as a “T” formed by Elmwood and Hertel. It cracks me up this poster is open to the outskirts of Buffalo, and then declares no interest in over half of the actual city. Where are the outskirts Parkside?
So where does this mindset leave us? It gets us to where Elmwood is today, as some view it at a crisis point. Large scale developers are starting to circle, proposing to knock down functioning buildings in order to build dense high end housing. Many who live in Elmwood now feel that the neighborhood will lose its identity, and why it’s an enjoyable place to live to begin with. The developers themselves are an easy target, however they are only responding to the demand. Right now there are more people that want to live in the Elmwood Village than housing exists for.
We get rising home prices on the West Side as people try to be close to the Elmwood strip, but many of the homes are selling at prices that don’t necessarily align with their current condition. People are buying them hoping to have others follow; and we get to that controversial word “Gentrification”. Really that’s where the hopes lie for most buying on the West Side. This makes it just a continuation of Elmwood and the momentum in that area, it’s not like the West Side is going to be a separate entity in the end.
Somehow Buffalo has to make the jump past being viewed as downtown and two streets. The way the cities revitalization is building out from this “T” is only creating more of the same, people buying on the fringe, hoping some day they are in the thick of it. It’s not really very edgy or inspiring and it’s slow going.
Investment can and should be happening in other areas of the city. Buffalo has neighborhoods that have long been stable and now are in a precarious position. Older residents and business owners that have kept them stable are passing on. Young people are not stepping in to take their place, the next 10 years will be critical. Areas like Lovejoy, Kaisertown, Riverside, and Black Rock have many solid homes and are very manageable in size. Homes may look dated but they have been well maintained and can be updated in stages instead of a big bang, making them much more manageable for those who don’t have a big budget. There are deals to be had in other neighborhoods. I’m always surprised that in South Buffalo you can live on an Olmsted Park or on the McKinley Parkway at a fraction of the cost of the trendy neighborhoods.
I find it odd these areas seem to be talked about less than Broadway-Fillmore for redevelopment. I appreciate the efforts and nostalgia for that area, however to make Broadway-Fillmore into a dense viable neighborhood would be a moon shot at this point. I find it much more critical to have a plan for areas that are still viable and can provide alternatives to Elmwood, Hertel and the West Side. It’s easier to maintain and revitalize an area than completely rebuild it from the ground up, which is the path these neighborhoods could go down.
How does this relate to the disparity in the revitalization of Buffalo? This uneven pattern of development creates these concentrated areas of hyper expensive real estate. The only way you can promote mixed income with this approach is through policy. This is essentially Manhattan or San Francisco “Buffalo Style”. It doesn’t improve lower income resident’s lives; it attempts to geographically eradicate them with market value.
A few summers ago I was in Baltimore I saw a historical map of Fells Point. The map showed how the “Elite” at the time were essentially forced to live close to those of lesser means as transportation didn’t allow otherwise. The caption on this picture struck me, the fact that a captain maybe neighbors with his crew today seems so foreign, that it was noteworthy. Now whether it’s by city vs. suburbs or neighborhood vs. neighborhood we are becoming an increasingly socioeconomically segregated society. This segregation leads to this feast or famine real estate investment cycle. It also creates an environment where people stand back from less fortunate neighborhoods and declare they need to help themselves. This sentiment is a cop out, it’s awfully difficult to fight disinvestment on your own when you are in concentrated poverty, and private investment is diverted to increasing prices in the already successful neighborhoods. All of us bear some burden of responsibility in the disparity we have in our neighborhoods.
In business a popular saying is “You’re either growing or dying”. It’s a harsh statement but outlines reality. It applies to neighborhoods as well – very few neighborhoods stay the same indefinitely. This boom bust mindset perpetuates itself, as investors and home owners will essentially over pay to be in the hot areas. Feeling the need to get a return on their investment they must push for policy and development that will send real estate prices even higher. Leaders in poor neighborhoods view investment with skepticism, thinking investors have an angle to push them out in the end. If we had a city that promoted mixed and moderate income neighborhoods, some of the barriers would start to come down. More neighborhoods could be growing not dying, and benefiting more residents.
What can be done to help this? I have a few ideas for the city. Develop a reciprocal tax break program, if a developer or business wants to start a project in Elmwood or Hertel, only make tax breaks available for them in they make an investment in a middle income or distressed portion of the city.
- Develop a roof loan program to help home owners purchase homes across the city. When I was a first time homebuyer many neighborhoods had overall decent houses, that were eliminated from FHA as they needed full tear offs. Working with local banks to provide some sort of avenue to get young home buyers into these houses in neighborhoods at risk could go a long ways.
- Be discerning with permits, I remember an article a while back about how often the residents of the Waterfront Condos are inconvenienced by 5K runs. The city could develop alternative sanctioned 5k routes in neighborhoods that could use more exposure. Recommending the groups seeking permits reach out to local businesses to provide support to the cause and drive participants to patronize them. Suggestions could be made for other events as well to see if lesser known parks/facilities could host their events.
- Promote existing assets in other neighborhoods. Many who live around Elmwood and Hertel don’t know there are indoor pools in Lovejoy and South Buffalo that are free in the summer and a nominal fee in the winter. Expand the hours and bring in Blue Cross or Independent Health to do water fitness programs at these facilities. Post signs outlining alternative facilities, at Delaware Park – sometimes it seems there are as many waiting to play tennis, as actually playing, while MLK has great facilities that go unused. Using these assets to fill in for gaps in recreation and fitness in other parts of the city will keep them in people’s minds and drive traffic to them. Right now much of the city is terribly under promoted.
This piece is not to discount the idea of critical mass or denounce any part of the city for being too successful. But, perhaps Buffalo can be a city that breaks this extreme cycle of red hot exclusive neighborhoods, and what I view as a forest fire to green shoot redevelopment approach in the rest of the city. We should strive for a new approach, as we hear the current one leaves many residents and wannabes feeling left out. A push to spread investment across the city would be both socially and economically beneficial to a much larger part of the population. Without a change in mindset, “New Buffalo” may never truly become “One Buffalo” until we #BuffaLoveAllofIt.
Lead image: Seneca Street near Cazenovia Park – bike lanes, restaurants… and in need of youthful investment.