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Fruit Belt residents need protection as rents rise

When Veronica Hemphill-Nichols learned her rent would jump 47 percent this fall, it fueled long-held fears that residents will be priced out of their own Fruit Belt neighborhood as the adjacent Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus takes off and drives up property values.

But her landlords cite a new roof and other upgrades to say the rent is still a bargain as they maintain a quality property in a suddenly-hot part of town.

Those conflicting interests illustrate why the city needs to establish a Fruit Belt land trust to let residents control some 200 city-owned parcels there.

After all, who better to balance those competing interests than the residents? They obviously want a thriving neighborhood that rises along with the rest of the “new Buffalo.” But they also want to be able to afford to be part of it.

The dilemma hit home for Hemphill-Nichols on the eve of a long-planned press conference and rally at 5 p.m. Friday at Locust and Carlton streets to demand a land trust. She just learned of the rent increase on the four-bedroom Grape Street house she shares with her sons – the type of huge hike she has fought as part of the Fruit Belt/McCarley Gardens Housing Task Force.

“We need our government to put a stop to this gentrification that’s occurring,” she said. “We need rent control.”

PGT Holding, her landlord, counters that it put on an $11,000 roof as part of $20,000 in upgrades. Even after increasing the rent from $425 to $625, it will take three years to recoup the investment and the rent will still be under market value, “even for the Fruit Belt,” said PGT’s Glenn Kaifas.

The company focuses on vacant houses but acquired this occupied home when buying another parcel.

“Our desire isn’t to displace her. Our desire is to slowly approach a fair-market rent,” he said.

The dispute illustrates why residents need a voice in what happens in their neighborhood. Yet the land trust being pushed by the Community First Alliance has yet to gain traction in City Hall. The Brown administration, for instance, wants residents to fund any trust – a poison pill that could doom it.

Common Council President Darius Pridgen, who represents the Fruit Belt, is more open-minded about possible solutions while being on point about one thing: Whatever happens should be driven by residents, not outsiders. He also said it must fit within the Fruit Belt strategic plan that’s being developed.

Pridgen said many residents just want to buy the vacant lot next to their property but are under the misperception that a land trust is the only way to make that possible. He talks of tailoring something to the area’s particular needs. For instance, his staff researched Chicago’s land trust, which uses deed restrictions to make sure property remains in the hands of low- and moderate-income people so that residents “are not gentrified out.”

Crafting the right answer requires the education of residents and city officials, he said. Some of that could come at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday in the Moot Senior Citizens Center when the CFA hosts a “teach in” on land trusts. Whatever the form, the trust still seems the best option for making sure residents control what happens in their neighborhood before – as Hemphill-Nichols’ dilemma illustrates – it’s too late. There has to be a balance between making sure the Fruit Belt is “movin’ on up” and making sure its residents aren’t moved out in the process.


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