Vacancies are at an all-time high while a third of the city's housing is considered substandard, according to city officials.
In order to combat the situation, the Department of Development Services recommends the city adopt an aggressive demolition policy, require larger building lots and discourage the construction of subsidized rental units, particularly high-density ones.
The policy to improve the quality of housing and neighborhoods is part of a proposed master plan and zoning laws being prepared by city staff. The City Council must act on both.
But there is "no magic wand" solution to the city's housing problems, according to Larry Krizan, the city's development chief.
"There is nothing we can do to wave a magic wand and make Niagara Falls Williamsville on the first of January," he said. But the city can make things better by adopting policies and programs to implement the policies, Krizan said.
Many housing stock problems are directly related to the city's declining population and migration of many people of child-bearing age.
According to a report prepared by David Brooks, the city's environmental services manager, the city's composition has changed dramatically. While many young people have left, the number of elderly and minorities has increased substantially. This means housing needs have changed too, he said.
The city's median household size has shrunk to about 2.37 persons, he said. As the household size continues to drop, larger units with two and three bedrooms are less desirable.
The changes in population and household size create demand for certain types of housing -- high-quality, energy-efficient, small units are at a premium. Lack of sufficient units in the right size could prompt more movement to suburbs, further aggravating the city's housing problems, officials say.
Between housing surveys conducted in 1978 and 1989, the number of sound housing units declined by one-half.
Brooks said accurate housing vacancy numbers are hard to come by. But according to preliminary 1990 Census figures, 2,714 of the city's 28,629 housing units are empty, for an all-time high vacancy rate of 9.5 percent.
The number of owner-occupied units is dropping and most of the vacant units are rental. Where possible, the planners recommend that the city encourage cluster development of new single-family homes in a subsidized development, like 22nd Street Village.
The draft policy calls for a more aggressive demolition strategy.The proposed factory outlet mega-mall, which would require the acquisition and demolition of many substandard housing units on the East Side, should receive priority attention, it says.
When individual lots become cleared or otherwise available, the city's policy should be to offer them to adjoining property owners to create larger lots, Krizan said. New zoning laws should lower allowed housing density by requiring larger building lots. Lots should be at least 60 feet wide compared to the 30-foot wide lots of 80 to 100 years ago.
Parking is a major problem because 51 percent of the housing stock was built prior to 1940, before the days of the multicar family. The narrow lots have no room for driveways and the problem is compounded when single-family houses are converted to multifamily.
New zoning laws should increase parking requirements for duplex and multifamily development or reconstruction, the policy says.
The city needs middle-class and luxury housing to preserve its tax base and keep people in the city who participate in civic and social organizations, which in turn contribute to the city's quality of life, Krizan said.
The policy recommends that sites, such the waterfront and the South End urban renewal area, should be identified and targeted to encourage such development.
Investment in parks and other items that improve the quality of life should be continued and the city should support projects that enhance the city's image as well as improve the economy and quality of life, he said.