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The people of Hickory Woods are trapped.

Their South Buffalo homes, modest but attractive dream houses for many families, are virtually worthless.

Even those who try to leave can't find buyers. And if they do, the buyers can't get mortgages or insurance.

While experts debate the health and environmental problems at Hickory Woods, one reality sinks in -- homeowners can't leave.

"I'm a prisoner in my own house," said Sam Lockwood, a longtime resident eager to leave the neighborhood. "My home is worthless, and I don't know what to do."

Plummeting property values are one of the reasons Common Council President James W. Pitts has proposed a city buyout and relocation of Hickory Woods homeowners.

His proposal, if enacted, could cover as many as 80 property owners and cost the city between $5 million and $10 million. It also would result in an environmental cleanup and provide a plan for redeveloping the property.

"People are losing their investment and equity," Pitts said. "Those who want to be relocated should be given the option of being relocated."

Mayor Anthony M. Masiello has stopped short of endorsing a buyout but, in a letter last week, asked federal housing officials for help in financing one if it becomes necessary.

"We're not in the business of hysteria," said Masiello spokesman Peter Cutler. "We still don't have the evidence we need, but the mayor is taking all the steps necessary."

City Hall, though, is concerned that a buyout at Hickory Woods might serve as a legal precedent for other homeowners seeking compensation from the city. Many of the Hickory Woods homeowners are City Hall employees.

A buyout may be the only opportunity for most homeowners to leave their neighborhood near the former steel plant site with their investment intact.

Each household is part of the human puzzle
at Hickory Woods, a jigsaw collection of families dealing with the fear, anger and uncertainity of living in a contaminated neighborhood.

Even today, nearly a year after the federal government intervened, there's disagreement over the environmental problems at Hickory Woods. What can't be denied are the devastating economics of living there.

"Those homes are worthless," said Dan Hannon of Dargavel & Hannon Real Estate in South Buffalo. "It's a bad situation. I think the city's going to have to bail them out."

That's exactly what the Lockwoods and dozens of other homeowners want.

But they're running out of time.

Resident has cancer

Sam Lockwood, 81, has terminal prostate cancer and suffers from almost constant pain.

And yet his only wish is to find a new home, a place where his wife, paralyzed and in a wheelchair, can be cared for when he dies.

"He's frustrated," said Sharon Hyland, a nurse practitioner at Roswell Park Cancer Institute. "He's very unique in that he has a lot of concerns about his wife and what will happen to her when he passes away. I don't know how long he has but it's not years."

The Lockwoods have been offered a spot at a local veterans home but don't want to leave until their house on Abby Street is sold.

They claim to have a friend who's willing to buy their home, but can't get a mortgage. Three different banks rejected him, they said.

Anna Lockwood's eyes well up in tears when she's asked about their plight.

"I can't take care of him, and he can't take care of me," the 77-year-old woman said, wiping away the tears. "In other words, we're stuck."

The Lockwoods, unlike most of their neighbors, have lived in Hickory Woods for decades. They bought their house 44 years ago, long before City Hall ever built there.

Refinancing turned down

For others, the case for a buyout and relocation is even stronger.

It was City Hall, after all, that sold most of them their homes, luring them to the neighborhood with cash subsidies and promises of a new house and a new vibrant neighborhood.

Absent from the city's sales job was any mention of the coke waste buried beneath their homes or the high levels of lead, arsenic and polycyclic hydrocarbons in the neighborhood around them.

Today, it's more of a nightmare than a dream for these homeowners.

Linda Benns, a city worker who owns a house on O'Connor Street, tried to refinance her mortgage last year and ran head-on into the ugly truth -- her 11-year old house is worth less than half what it was a few years ago.

A bank appraiser estimated the value of her house at $36,000, down from $75,900 the year before.

"Financially, it killed me," she said. "When I asked why it was so low, the bank told me it was because the (Environmental Protection Agency) had concerns about the property."

Legal claims filed

The stories of economic hardship are numerous. Ask any real estate agent familiar with Hickory Woods and you'll hear story after story of homes not selling and mortgages denied.

"You can't put a value on those houses," said Clare Shea, a sales agent at Stovroff Potter Real Estate. "I know there are people who want to sell but don't even try. They know it's next to impossible."

Shea tried to sell a home in Hickory Woods last year but, after six months, gave up trying. A few people called, but no one came.

One of her colleagues, Helen Marshman, also listed a house in the neighborhood.

"We had a property listed for 18 months," she said. "We had good advertising, lots of calls but not a single showing. I couldn't get a showing."

To hear the experts talk, the problems are sad but not surprising.

"I have a lot of sympathy for those people," said Gary Kenline, a vice president at Hunt Real Estate. "Once a problem like that becomes big news, everything grinds to a halt."

More than 30 homeowners are fighting back by filing legal claims against the city and two previous landowners -- LTV Steel Corp. and Donner Hanna Coke Co. Their claims are based on damage to their health and property.

Their lawyer, Richard Lippes of Buffalo, represents more than 40 families and says the number increases daily as more homeowners realize the city's at fault.

"They feel trapped," Lippes said. "Most of them are afraid for their children. Many also feel guilty, although they shouldn't. They want to protect their children but can't leave, can't sell their homes. They're totally traumatized."

Pitts wants remedy

Pitts thinks Hickory Woods residents have made a clear and convincing case, and it's now time for City Hall to step forward with a remedy.

His buyout proposal is unique in that it would allow the city to use its urban renewal powers to buy what he considers distressed properties. He said the Council will adopt his recommendation at today's meeting and push for the mayor to approve it quickly.

The Lockwoods are skeptical.

"They just keep giving us a line of bull," said Sam Lockwood. "Meanwhile, we're stuck here with no place to go."

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