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Buffalo City Hall, It’s Like a Dog Chasing Its Tail

William Blanda posted this tale of frustration and unnecessary waste of public resources on Facebook.  Don’t read it if you are on blood pressure medication.  Call your councilman and ask for accountability.  This same story has been repeated over and over again.  This kind of silliness needs to be stopped. The only way to beat City Hall is to speak up.

953 Smith Street was demolished earlier this week. Its architecture was not inspiring, the outside ratty with holes in the roof and weathered clapboard. It was not located near a booming business district or even another house. It stood alone on what has become Buffalo’s urban prairie – one of the last houses standing on a block that showed signs of life and occupancy just five years ago. 953 Smith was city-owned, left to sit, and knocked down for around $16,000 provided by taxpayers.

A number of people attempted to purchase this house with plans to rehabilitate the structure, including myself. Those familiar with Buffalo’s Homestead Program might wonder why a structurally sound and recently occupied house was demolished rather than saved – it is a question I have been pondering for a while. For those not familiar with the program, it was designed as a way for ambitious individuals to purchase a city-owned house within certain neighborhoods for the cost of one dollar (plus closing fees) and spend thirty-six months bringing it up to code and occupying it. Neighborhoods could begin to stabilize, taxes could be collected on previously vacant properties, and historic houses would be saved. The cost to the city? Not a penny. Many residents of Buffalo have purchased homes this way and have experienced relatively few problems with the process. 953 Smith proved to be a little different.

While I was not the first to attempt purchasing this house, I was the first to meet every qualification required by the city. I had in excess of $5,000 saved, a job as a carpenter, and an in-depth rehabilitation plan. Those are the only concrete requirements; $5,000, a job, and a plan. Over the course of the next month I found these requirements do not really matter to the department of real estate. Numerous trips to empty offices in city hall lead to fruitless days of missed work. Meetings with city officials resulted in more confusion and the realization that performing even the smallest task in city hall is a miracle. By the end of the month I was asked not to have $5,000 but almost $18,000 (my total rehabilitation budget) in cash and scolded for not including an asbestos remediation amount in my initial plan, though the house did not contain asbestos. During this time, the city continued to send fire fighters out to the house for training. Holes cut into the roof, chimneys knocked down and left in piles – it all felt so personal. I was not bothered by the training taking place, but rather the eagerness the city had to send them to a house someone was trying to purchase. The city knew there was an interest in saving the house. They knew of my countless visits to an empty real estate office trying to check on my paperwork, my unanswered phone calls and emails, but they continuously turned a cold shoulder and found ways to stop the acquisition of this house.

953 Smith motivated me. It made the idea of investing years of my life in Buffalo seem right, but against every logical reason it just didn’t seem to happen. With the house gone and cranes still parked over the footprint of its walls, the question remains of why the process became so difficult. Why a qualified individual with enough funds to stabilize and occupy a city owned house was turned down and the property demolished. The idea of the Homestead program was to save the city money on demolition, offer individuals a path toward home ownership, and keep people in the city. 953 Smith was just one house, but every week Buffalo’s housing stock becomes a little smaller. One house is gone, but how many more are going to be demolished until entire neighborhoods simply disappear?

If you want to know more about the homestead program feel free to contact William at williamblanda@yahoo.com.

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Written by David Steele

David Steele

Architect ( a real one, not just the armchair type), author of "Buffalo, Architecture in the American Forgotten Land" ( www.blurb.com ), lover of great spaces, hater of sprawl and waste,
advocate for a better way of doing things.

View All Articles by David Steele
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