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Suburbanites among purchasers of foreclosed homes East Amherst couple plans to refurbish decaying property

When an East Amherst couple told friends they planned to buy a decaying Fillmore Avenue building and spend up to $90,000 turning it into their new home, they faced dumbfounded stares.

"A lot of people think we're crazy," said Paul V. Harris, a mechanical engineer at Praxair Inc.

He and his wife, Anna J. Harris, grew up Clarence.

"We're died-in-the-wool suburbanites," she said. "But I've always liked the idea of living in the city. I don't mind living in nitty-gritty surroundings."

The couple celebrated Anna's birthday Tuesday at the city's property foreclosure auction. They placed a winning bid of $2,500 on the sprawling structure at 798 Fillmore Ave. between Sycamore Street and Broadway. While many homes on Fillmore are well-maintained, some nearby streets have been in decline for many years and are dotted with vacant buildings.

The long-empty two-family building the Harrises bought has commercial space in the front and includes a cottage in the back. As they checked on their new acquisition, Paul Harris said he's not fooling himself about the gargantuan rehab project that awaits them.

The city originally placed the property on its demolition list. Paul Harris credited Housing Court Judge Henry J. Nowak, Common Council President David A. Franczyk and Assessment and Taxation Commissioner Martin F. Kennedy for helping to save the structure from the wrecking ball.

"It needs a lot of work," he said, eyeing broken windows and other signs of decay. "But it's a structurally sound building."

Work will be done in phases, and the Harrises hope to move into the first renovated section by June. They have no plans to lease commercial space or rent the cottage. Married for a year and a half, they hope to fill the cavernous structure with a large family. Anna Harris is one of 12 children.

"But we're not going to have 12," she chuckled.

She is also an artist who works in pastels. She's looking forward to having a large studio in her new digs.

The Harrises have close friends who moved into a home on Fillmore Avenue a year ago. Mark Stevens and his family relocated from the Wyoming County Town of Pavilion to be closer to friends who are part of a non-denominational Christian fellowship.

Paul and Anna Harris belong to the same fellowship, and they said having the Stevenses as neighbors is a huge selling point. Paul Harris added that he's also looking forward to a shorter commute to work.

Franczyk lives less than a block away on Fillmore, and he praised the Harrises for believing in the neighborhood.

"This is exactly the kind of thing we want to see," Franczyk said.

Michelle Johnson, a housing activist in the city's Broadway-Fillmore area, said it's rare but not unheard-of for suburban residents and out-of-towners to relocate to the neighborhood.

"There are some really beautiful homes in the Fillmore District," she said.

"People who live in the area feel things are getting better," Anna Harris said.

Stevens agreed, noting that a number of exciting neighborhood initiatives are under way, including an urban farming project.

The city's annual foreclosure auction continues today in the Buffalo Niagara Convention Center.

e-mail: bmeyer@buffnews.com

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