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Hope rises for sinking homes Group proposed to seek aid for Amherst owners

Hundreds of Amherst residents whose homes have been sinking and cracking because of soil problems may one day be able to obtain financial help through a nonprofit corporation that would be set up by a town task force, officials said Monday.

While they stress that plans are not complete, task force members working to establish the nonprofit corporation say that it provides one possible way to help owners of sinking homes.

"It's going to be part of a multiple solution, and it's not going to be a perfect one," said Darlene Torbenson, co-chairman of the task force and a spokeswoman for owners of sinking homes.

But Torbenson and others also say that such a corporation could allow the group to seek money from private and some public sources and channel it to homeowners in need.

Supervisor Satish B. Mohan also believes the town can direct some builders to donate to the fund.

"When they ask me, I tell them, 'Well, you guys created that situation and you have an obligation to take care of that,' " Mohan said.

Estimates are that as many as 1,000 or more Amherst homes may be sinking and cracking because of poor underground conditions. Moody's Investors Service also has expressed concerns that the damaged homes could affect the town's bond rating, currently one of the highest in the region, Aa3.

As it is, the town has applied for state and federal grants to aid homeowners, but none of the efforts has paid off so far.

The 20-member Amherst Soil and Foundation Problems Task Force was formed following a series of reports in The Buffalo News starting in late 2002 about residents whose houses suddenly started cracking and breaking up.

The reports also led to the formation of a $500,000 study of Amherst's soils by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which explored a number of problems with the soils and construction methods that have contributed to the sinking homes.

According to the study, up to 2,000 Amherst homes could be affected in the problem areas, which are widespread across North Amherst.

Torbenson, who also heads the North Amherst Residents Coalition, says state laws prevent public funds from being used to help homeowners, but the picture is less clear when it comes to state housing funds and some possible federal funds.

Nevertheless, a private corporation could raise money from private as well as some public sources and use it to benefit homeowners by buying the affected homes, repairing or rebuilding them and then selling them back to the original owner or a new buyer.

e-mail: tdolan@buffnews.com

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