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A spreading plague of vacancies Once a problem identified with the city, empty homes have become troublesome for the likes of Cheektowaga and Amherst

Town officials pulled up to the once-charming farmer's cottage. They barely had time to get out of their car before a neighbor opened her window and called out to them in a hopeful tone: "Are you going to tear it down?"

Vacant houses long have been tagged as a city problem. But this scene was in the Town of Cheektowaga. And there are signs that other first-ring suburbs face the beginnings of a problem that has plagued the city for decades.

Amherst and Cheektowaga combined show a 55 percent increase in the number of vacant housing units, from 3,583 units in 2000 to an estimated 5,558 in 2005, according to 2005 survey data released by the U.S. Census Bureau. The figures include both homeowner housing and rentals.

"There are more vacant homes," said Randy Randazzo, an Amherst real estate broker for more than 35 years with M.J. Peterson. "There are more houses that have been foreclosed on, too."

Limited census data showed the Town of Tonawanda's vacancy rates to be fairly level.

Compared with Buffalo's numbers, suburban vacancy rates seem piddling. Buffalo's vacancy rate stands at 17 percent, with more than 20,000 homes empty, according to the 2005 American Community Survey produced by the Census Bureau.

By contrast, the combined vacancy rate for Amherst and Cheektowaga has grown from 4 percent to 6 percent. Given the size of the 2005 survey sample, it's possible the true vacancy rate could be somewhat lower or higher. And only a fraction of these properties are abandoned single-family homes.

But no matter how you cut the data, the number of vacant homes has clearly grown, and that worries some suburban officials. The fear among neighbors and town officials is that some vacant housing may translate into derelict and neglected buildings, a lure for drug dealers, trash dumpers, transients and junkies.

"I do have some concerns," said Cheektowaga Town Board Member Alice Magierski. "We do believe [vacant housing] has the potential to be more of a problem than we're looking at now."

Amherst Supervisor Satish B. Mohan also said he had concerns.

"Developers say there's no vacancy," he said, "but I see 'for lease,' 'for lease' all over the streets."

In November, representatives from Amherst, Cheektowaga and Tonawanda joined the city in the National Vacant Properties Campaign, which offers resources to deal with vacant and abandoned housing in cities and suburbs.

Realty specialists and code compliance officials say the neighborhoods with the greatest number of vacant homes tend to be older, cheaper and often closer to the city. They often lack modern updates and look "tired."

Housing market observers also cited higher foreclosure rates, a lag in corporate housing sales and the death of aging homeowners as contributing to the vacancy rate.

"A lot of the ones I have right now were estates," said Peggy Reynolds, a Cheektowaga area real estate broker.

Amherst and Cheektowaga also have higher percentages of rental properties, which may greatly contribute to the vacancy rate.

Thomas J. Adamczak, Cheektowaga's supervising code enforcement officer, gave a tour of abandoned properties throughout the town.

One property was littered with fallen shingles, flashing, tree limbs and dumped concrete. Another, just abandoned a couple of weeks ago, was missing its front and back doors and had a box of medical waste in the backyard.

Adamczak pulled up to the small, white farmer's cottage on Wellworth Place.

The house was leaning to one side. Squirrels were living in a gaping hole in the porch eaves. It had been vacant since the 1990s. Town employees had to take down an old backyard chicken coop.

Neighbor Pat Hetzler, a retiree, recalled young people coming and going from the empty house at all hours.

"We had a terrible time," she said. "We kept calling the cops, and they boarded it up. It was like the 'Psycho' house."

But the structure may not be coming down any time soon.

"We haven't demolished a building in 15 to 20 years, because we never had the money," Adamczak said.

He hopes the situation will change soon -- especially since over the last six years or so, the number of vacant and neglected properties the town monitors has grown from 200 to more than 500, with annual cleanup costs reaching nearly $150,000 a year.

Cheektowaga might not yet have the money to tear down properties, but at least it's keeping track of problem properties throughout the 29-square-mile town.

Amherst does not, even though the town's overall vacancy rate appears to be rising like Cheektowaga's.

Amherst Town Council Member Daniel J. Ward said he doesn't believe that abandoned single-family homes are a big issue there because overall housing demand in the town has been high, and he hasn't received many complaints from residents.

As a lawyer, however, he has noticed a rise in home foreclosures.

Last year was a banner year for foreclosures throughout the region, said Richard R. Haenggi, manager of foreclosure transactions for Realty USA, one the highest-volume foreclosure sales companies in Western New York. The bad economy has led to population loss, which in turn creates vacancies in homes that are sometimes hard to sell, according to Haenggi and other real estate managers.

Real estate workers say many first-time suburban home buyers look to Amherst and Cheektowaga and often take out huge mortgages or otherwise fall deeply into debt until their finances come crashing down and banks foreclose on them.

"We are definitely seeing an increase in the number of foreclosures in the suburbs and the really nice neighborhoods, as well," said George Correa, a foreclosure specialist with Hunt Realty.

"Fifty to 60 percent of the people who are foreclosed on move out of the house before the foreclosure takes place. We've had properties that have apparently been vacant a year, a year and a half."

Currently, Correa said, he is dealing with long-vacant properties in Amherst, Cheektowaga and West Seneca.

Adamczak, the Cheektowaga codes officer, said that it seems as if the town can never get ahead.

"It seems like as fast as some of these homes are occupied, others are becoming vacant," he said. "It's a small percentage, but it's a percentage that's been growing."

e-mail: stan@buffnews.com

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