THE CITY'S GUTSY NEW LANDLORD - The Buffalo News

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THE CITY'S GUTSY NEW LANDLORD

He hit Buffalo two weeks ago with $500,000 in his pocket, and in a two-day buying spree he snapped up 284 properties in some of the city's most run-down neighborhoods.

Officials who run the city's tax auction said it was unprecedented.

"He had stacks of cashier's checks in all different denominations, ready to be signed," said Senior Tax Administrator Bruna Michaux.

"And I mean stacks," she emphasized, spreading her hands six inches apart.

Overnight, Scott Wizig -- a publicity-shy real estate speculator from Houston -- became one of the biggest property owners in Buffalo.

What did he buy? Homes that no one else wanted, where the back taxes are stacked as thick as the code violations.

Low-income tenants occupy three-fourths of his Buffalo houses. The average price: less than $2,200 for one- and two-family wood-frame houses built early last century.

Depending on what Wizig does with these homes, a great deal is at stake for the city. Buffalo has experienced sliding property values -- the city has less value than Amherst, with one-third the population -- and blighted neighborhoods spreading on both the East and West sides. That's precisely where the 32-year-old Houston investor bought.

What does he plan for Buffalo?

The Buffalo News spent two weeks tracking this pudgy, blond self-made millionaire. The News pored over land records for hundreds of properties Wizig owns in Houston and sought information from officials there in property tax collection, community development and grass-roots housing groups.

What emerges is a portrait of a man who made a fortune buying and trading in housing for lower-middle class families. Houston has its share of flashy real estate players, but Wizig isn't one of them.

One positive sign for Buffalo: Wizig pays his taxes. On the nearly 170 properties he owns in Houston, The News found that he owes only about $15,000 in taxes. That bodes well for Buffalo, where property owners owe the city an estimated $15 million in back taxes.

It is more difficult to predict how Wizig will manage older housing, like what he bought here. In Houston, he bought houses that dated to the early 1980s and were in good condition. His foray into older properties in Buffalo will be his first such large-scale effort.

Housing advocates sound a note of caution.

"He might not have recognized it, but many of those old houses are lead contaminated and have to be lead abated," said Florence Baugh of the Community Action Organization. "You don't want to discourage him, but you want him to be aware of these considerations."

A tour of a typical Houston subdivision where Wizig owns houses shows modest, tidy ranch models. Financing offered by Wizig brings a house within reach of people who never thought they would achieve homeownership in working-class neighborhoods such as these.

With so many holdings in low-income areas, the company has worked to avoid the label "slumlord," said David Moore-Jones, comptroller of Scott Wizig Enterprises.

Wizig has kept a good reputation. The director of Houston's code-enforcement division, who professes to know every slumlord in the city, has never heard of him.

And Wizig is confident in his ability to deal with older housing.

"Houston's obviously not as old a city as Buffalo, but we've certainly been able to come up with programs to deal with conditions of the property and deal with them effectively," he said. "We've never sought financing from county or city government."

That is typical of Wizig, who avoids the politics of redevelopment issues. He is married with two children and a volunteer for and contributor to Jewish Family Services.

"He keeps everything close to the vest, very quiet," said Shad Bogany, one of Wizig's closest friends. The next president of the Houston Association of Realtors and the host of a radio talk show, the outgoing Bogany is Wizig's opposite in many ways.

How he got started

As a kid, Wizig made money buying bicycles at police auctions, fixing and selling them. Now he buys houses at foreclosure auctions and fixes them.

Born and raised in Houston, Wizig entered the real estate market instead of college. At 18, he used $10,000 in savings to buy his first foreclosed houses.

He couldn't have picked a better time. Houston's boom of the early 1980s collapsed in 1985, with new houses going for 20 cents on the dollar, recalled Barton Smith, an urban economist at the University of Houston.

About that time, Bogany heard about the teenage Wizig from another real estate agent. Wizig sought Bogany's advice, a deep friendship evolved, and Wizig still consults Bogany on his plans. Bogany, in turn, has watched Wizig mature.

"When he was younger, it was pretty much 'My way or the highway,' " Bogany recalled. "As he's gotten older, he's gotten more mellow."

Wizig first broached his ideas about Buffalo while the two were at a Houston Rockets game last spring, Bogany recalled. Wizig noted that a Forbes magazine article had cited upstate New York as a possible spot for investments.

A few months later, Wizig bought a couple dozen homes at a tax auction in Syracuse, where officials there now describe him as a professional who pays his bills on time.

Wizig said it's too early to know whether he will concentrate on renting or selling his Buffalo properties. Bogany predicted he will rent them.

"What he's told me is it's harder to foreclose (in New York), so he'll rent," Bogany said, referring to the fact that in Texas, Wizig holds the mortgages on a number of the homes he has sold.

Bogany, though, says that Wizig plays fair in a difficult market.

"He'll take chances banks and mortgage companies won't take," Bogany said. "If you've got excellent credit and you can buy a house, you're not going to use Scott."

Bogany, who is African-American, also describes his white friend as "probably somewhat naive," but added, "If anybody could work with people, he can.

"His staff is very diverse, every color of the rainbow. . . . Scott doesn't see white or black -- he sees green."

Guadalupe Guerra bought a house from Wizig two years ago on a contract for deed, a financing method in Texas often used for low-income buyers with poor credit that enables the seller to repossess the house quickly if a payment is missed. Guerra said that the late fees are harsh -- nearly $300 -- but that a contract for deed is her only shot at a house.

Guerra lives in Houston's tough South Post Oak section. A 25-year-old single mother from El Salvador, she earns about $12,000 a year cleaning houses. She struggles to meet her $452 monthly payment but is glad she is buying her house.

"I got it on my own," she said proudly in softly accented English. "I cannot get an apartment for $450 anywhere. And this is $452, and it's three bedrooms."

What's in store for Buffalo

Wizig anticipates no problems in Buffalo.

During an interview at a Houston coffee shop last week, Wizig displayed restless energy as he reluctantly paused to talk about how he hopes to transfer his Texas experience to Buffalo.

"I think we tap into a market a lot of banks and mortgage companies aren't interested in pursuing," he said.

Wizig plans to hire local contractors and property managers, but he will move Dolores Mares, a trusted employee, from Texas to Buffalo as his local manager.

City housing officials -- who said Wizig's purchases were the real estate version of Dumpster-diving -- freely admit to a history of failed programs in the low-income rental market, some public and many private.

So if Wizig takes these properties, pays the taxes and improves them, it would be a major plus for a city where delinquent owners owe about $15 million in back taxes.

"I see this as a real opportunity," said Mayor Anthony M. Masiello. "And what I'm going to do is set up a series of meetings with him to put in place a strategy for moving forward."

Several activists welcomed Wizig's investment.

"He could wind up being one of the best things that's happened to the city in a long time," said West Side housing advocate Steven H. Polowitz.

Barbara A. Miller-Williams, the Ellicott District member of the Common Council, was impressed by her first encounter with Wizig. A tenant in a house Wizig just bought in her district called her office, complaining that a water pipe had broken.

Miller-Williams contacted Wizig, and he immediately sent someone to do the repair.

What Wizig is up against

But Wizig is taking a risk in Buffalo. Most everyone admits it. And if he loses, he won't be the only one affected.

"It gives you pause when you think of somebody who comes here from out of town and buys almost 300 properties," said Erma Brown, executive director of Ellicott District Community Development, which works in an area where Wizig bought more than a dozen properties. "The first thing that went through my mind was, are we getting another slumlord?"

Still, Wizig appeared to know what he was getting into at the auction.

During two days of bidding, he and four assistants studied details about houses they targeted -- facts gathered during hundreds of forays into Buffalo's inner city via taxi.

"He had nine binders with worksheets . . . a picture of each property, the type of building, how many square feet it has, how many bedrooms and how many baths," said Michaux, the city tax administrator.

"He had an appraiser . . . who had appraised several hundred properties, and he had the prices he was willing to pay. In other words, he did his homework. He realizes he's taking a risk. . . . But if it works, he's going to move the city forward."

The city and Wizig's tenants could be hurt if things don't go well. But if that happens, the city now has options that wouldn't have existed if the properties had remained on the foreclosure list.

Here's why:

Wizig bought from the bottom of the barrel. Most of the properties he bought were headed for demolition. If he fails to perform in some way -- doesn't pay his taxes or fails to correct code violations -- the city can put sanctions in place, and it now has an identifiable owner with deep pockets.

Wizig also will be responsible for demolition costs, if necessary.

It's Wizig's customers who stand to lose if he doesn't meet his responsibilities. They could remain stuck in bad housing if he doesn't perform -- in which case the city would have to go after him.

Selling the properties

Still, some advocates are concerned that he plans to market to low-income buyers. Wizig told officials he expects to offer 12 percent mortgages and terms such as rent-to-own and other financing plans.

But while 12 percent may be reasonable for those with poor credit histories, advocates say that buyers who work to improve their credit often qualify for bank rates of about 8 percent.

David Young, director of Neighborhood Housing Services of Buffalo, also points out that city officials and housing experts have struggled to improve conditions in the same segment of the housing market that Wizig has targeted.

"One of the issues is that we have a city with a housing infrastructure for 600,000 residents while we have a population of just under 300,000, so we have a tremendous vacancy rate," he said.

And potential buyers for Wizig's houses are low- and moderate-income buyers often impatient to own a home -- before they have established credit and learned its responsibilities, he said.

Legal Aid attorney Daire Brian Irwin, who represents low-income homeowners, agreed, saying that some enter the market "biting off more than they can chew . . . not adequately counseled in the pitfalls of ownership, and then get caught in mortgages that they can't afford."

Michael Clarke, program director of Local Initiative Support Corp., which helps finance nonprofit housing groups, said he was "very surprised that anybody would come in and pick up this number of properties."

"He's rolling the dice here," Clark said. "The question is, what does he want to get out of it?"

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