Thousands of vacant houses and lots in Buffalo represent both a crisis and an opportunity, a panel of speakers said Wednesday at a forum in Temple Beth Zion.
The subject was part of a breakfast series hosted by Heart of the City Neighborhoods, a local nonprofit that rehabs and sells vacant homes.
A shift in thinking is needed so that the city's housing stock is seen as an asset, said Sam Magavern, co-director of Partnership for the Public Good.
"We have very high-quality housing. It's old, but that means it's really well made. But we have an urgent need to stabilize, repair and rehab," Magavern said.
"It doesn't make sense to build new, because the buildings we already have maintain the urban fabric and make these neighborhoods a place where people want to live."
Magavern said green retrofitting to reduce high energy costs is needed on a large scale.
Thousands of vacant lots, Magavern said, could boost community life if they are turned into urban farms, community gardens, playgrounds and pocket parks.
He cited the example of PUSH, which in its 25-block Green Empowerment Zone has acquired and found new uses for 45 properties.
Anthony Armstrong, program officer of the Buffalo office of Local Support Initiatives Corp., used Postal Service data to show dramatic population declines and high vacancy rates in Buffalo and, increasingly, first-ring suburbs.
"This really is a crisis situation for the region. Almost every census tract in the entire county has more vacant and undeliverable addresses than it did five years ago," Armstrong said.
The vacancy problem, he said, was made worse by declining home values in hard-pressed areas in a real estate market where supply outweighs demand. But Armstrong said one size doesn't fit all when it comes to finding solutions.
"Some activities are best coordinated at the regional level, some at the level of local government, and others at the block level. This needs to be taken on in a very cooperative and coordinated manner to make it work," he said.
Armstrong suggested a pending application by Erie County, Buffalo and two other municipalities for a land bank could make it easier to gain control over vacant, run-down properties.
Ellicott Council Member Darius Pridgen said he has been hamstrung on the Common Council by a lack of transparency on city housing policies.
"I would ask [the public] to push us to make a clear process so when they have a few dollars and a dream, they can participate in rebuilding our communities and our neighborhoods," he said.