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First land trust effort in Fruit Belt is growing, but so is skepticism

Dennice Barr's Grape Street home has been in her family for 70 years, tucked in the Fruit Belt where escalating rents are becoming the norm.

Three blocks away on Lemon Street, India B. Walton pays $1,200 per month to rent a single-family home.

Both women are worried about something that would have seemed absurd 15 years ago: whether a rush of people who want to live in the neighborhood will make it difficult – even impossible – for them to stay.

The answer could be a nonprofit, community-based land trust that would be charged with developing homes on vacant lots. It would be the first one in the Fruit Belt, but not in Buffalo.

"I have a shoot-for-the-moon kind of attitude," said Walton, a three-year Fruit Belt resident who works for Open Buffalo, a force behind the land trust idea. "We have our vision and plan for the future."

The neighborhood just east of the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus thrived through the 1950s. Residents said it began to change around the time race riots hit nearby Jefferson Avenue in the late 1960s, then youth gangs roamed the Fruit Belt streets in the 1970s. The neighborhood became more poverty stricken and viewed as a mecca for crime, even though some said the neighborhood was never as dangerous as its reputation made it out to be.

Over time, the neighborhood became older and quieter. Then the development of the Medical Campus brought attention to it, along with a concern: If the neighborhood becomes the hot real estate market some believe it might, will development increase real estate values – and tax bills – and force residents from their homes?

For now, "might" is the key word. The gentrification that was predicted for the 34-block neighborhood has not yet come to pass, but residents, community activists and some city officials all agree that something needs to be in place to ensure it remains an affordable place to live for low- to moderate-income residents.

Growth on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus has brought new attention to the Fruit Belt. (Derek Gee/News file photo)

The land trust effort began in earnest the last two years. Supporters last summer visited the Dudley Street area of Boston's Roxbury neighborhood as a prospective land trust model for the Fruit Belt. Common Council President Darius G. Pridgen, whose district includes the Fruit Belt, and other city officials have been negotiating with the Fruit Belt Advisory Council in recent weeks to craft a piloted land trust and start small.

"I want it to happen sooner, rather than later," Pridgen said. "Everybody has their own opinion of what is happening there. What they might see right now, can look a lot different in the next year. I wouldn't be supporting it if I thought it was going to fail."

But before anything can happen, a number of hurdles – with funding at the top of the list – must be negotiated.

The city is offering to sell up to 20 of the roughly 200 vacant Fruit Belt lots it owns. The Fruit Belt Advisory Council would like an additional six to eight parcels for commercial space to construct an office building to house the land trust offices, said Barr, president of the Fruit Belt Advisory Council.

"What we really want to see is to not rely on developers or elected officials to dictate, but that the community have a say and not just an arbitrary say," said Franchelle Parker, Open Buffalo executive director.

In theory, once it is established, the land trust serves as a kind of developer, acquiring and owning the land and maintaining it. The trust would be in charge of building homes that could either be rented with a long-term, renewable lease or owned by residents. A cap would be in place on the allowable profit if the home were sold. A board of directors would have a representation of community residents but also need specialized experts in real estate, law, engineering and development to function.

"We're not finished negotiating on how it works. We're only at the beginning of some of these conversations," Barr said. "We're looking for the city to give over some lots, but chances are pretty high we may have to pay something. We're not looking to pay market value."

A designated developer agreement and development plan would need to be in place. So far, the FB Community Land Trust organization has raised more than $25,000, Barr said, declining to be more specific.

Barr said it would be best to cluster the lots together. The city is offering for sale vacant lots scattered in the southern and eastern portions of the Fruit Belt.  "We first need to make sure we're picking out the right clusters and have to survey the land," she said. "We have to be very careful."

Before anything can happen, agreement has to be reached on what the term "affordable" means.

"We're haggling over what's affordable," Barr said. "Some people are using statistics from Niagara Falls and Cheektowaga. What's affordable in the inner city is definitely not what's affordable in Cheektowaga."

Under the best of circumstances, establishing a land trust is a difficult proposition. That may be more so in a neighborhood of community groups and block clubs, and a history of power struggles and politicking.

"There's so much in-house fighting within the Fruit Belt," said Veronica Hemphill-Nichols, head of the Fruit Belt McCarley Gardens Task Force. "Every time somebody comes in with a 'We'll give you $5,000,' we act like starving, caged dogs. This person drops a raw steak into the cage and we rip each other apart over it. Developers and the Medical Campus buy us cheap."

The Promiseland Missionary Baptist Church is located on High Street in the Fruit Belt. (Derek Gee/News file photo)

On paper, there already are two "formed" land trust groups. Attorney Joseph Trapp formed the Fruit Belt Community Land Trust a year ago. A day later, the FB Community Land Trust was formed. The dueling trusts, including an allegation of who has the right to use "Fruit Belt" in its name, almost immediately led to conflict. Trapp has since shifted his focus away from the Fruit Belt to the Masten District.

"Because of the politics of that particular neighborhood, we're not doing anything right now," Trapp said. "We go through areas where we can make a difference, and work in areas that are not heavily factionalized."

Confusion about the land trust structure and whether it would succeed in the Fruit Belt has fueled skepticism.

"In the long run, I don't think that most of the people could run it because they don't understand it. And that's scary," said Harvil Hill of Mulberry Street. "Who is going to pay for all of this? You have to do the homework to know what's going on. I don't think they have enough lots to make it feasible. I don't see how they could run it successfully."

A land trust needs to be tailor made to fit a culture and community, said Hemphill-Nichols. "It's not a cookie-cutter process. They don't have the backing of the residents in the Fruit Belt."

But Pridgen said he remains hopeful.

"If there's a chance that it does not work out, it is more important for me that we try to address the negative effects of gentrification rather than do nothing."

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