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Redo housing rehab plan With regional land bank derailed, state and city need improved bill

There's nothing like a near-death experience to focus the mind on tasks left undone. The fact that Mayor Byron W. Brown felt ambushed by an act of the Legislature that almost gave someone else the governmental power to acquire, improve and sell vacant property in the city seems to have provided a useful spark for pulling out every tool in the box.

While -- make that because -- there is no one-size-fits all solution to the problem of vacant and deteriorating housing, there will have to be more cooperation among the various levels of government and with assorted stakeholders to face the issue.

People in the know don't disagree on the basic problem: Buffalo has huge numbers of vacant houses and the city, which inherits abandoned real estate when taxes go unpaid, owns as many as 8,000 of them. Those properties are a drain on the city's tax base, depress the value of nearby homes, create a fire hazard and constitute what the lawyers call an "attractive nuisance," drawing vermin with four legs and two.

The disagreement has been what to do about it.

Brown's approach has been denounced as being overly focused on tearing down empty houses -- planning to demolish 5,000 or more in five years. Concern that the city wasn't doing enough to rehabilitate such properties, at once saving a building and providing an affordable home to a family in need of one, was the motivation behind a bill that would have empowered the state and Erie County to create a land bank to acquire, restore and sell abandoned homes.

That bill, sponsored by Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, D-Buffalo, passed the Legislature but was vetoed by Gov. David A. Paterson. Brown convinced his friend the governor that the bill was flawed because it didn't include any funding and failed to coordinate with the city governments that are already dealing with the problem on a daily basis.

Backers of the legislation groused that the mayor's objection was simple not-invented-here resentment. It would be unfair to accuse Brown of inattention to the city's epidemic of abandoned houses -- indeed, that has been a focus of his administration, even though there had been little movement on creation of a city land bank. But ultimately, that doesn't matter. The need is for a better effort by all involved to work together and to apply solutions as they are shown to fit each city, each neighborhood, each block and each building.

Brown's alternative -- a land bank bill that puts a city or, better, a consortium of cities, in charge of the operation -- would indeed be an improvement. And Paterson, Brown and Hoyt all say they see the need for a land bank and the opportunity to work toward creating one next year. Funding will be a problem and the issue of control still could prove contentious, but should not be insurmountable.

Whether the final form is a regional land bank or a city one that allows suburban and even rural governments to participate in decisions and programs, there should be effort not only to fix any flaws but also to ensure that this valuable tool is available not just to Buffalo but to other governments facing problems of blight.

Another positive city step, announced last week, was the agreement between the mayor and the activists of People United for Sustainable Housing to bring back two houses on Massachusetts Avenue as a first step toward reclaiming 500 homes in five years.

Meanwhile, the state should review existing laws that stand in the way of cities giving houses that are good rehabilitation candidates to developers, both for-profits and not-fors. And labor rules may need bending.

Most important of all, in Buffalo, is an understanding that all the rehab grants in the world won't help in a city that has too few residents and too few potential buyers. A good portion of those buildings will have to go, replaced not by scuzzy lots but by parks, playgrounds, even urban farms.

The feuding has to end. There's too much work to be done.

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