LOCKPORT - There are more than 100 abandoned homes in the City of Lockport, and city officials are looking for ways to keep them from dragging down the neighborhoods where they're located.
One idea, being tried for the first time in Lockport on Tuesday, Dec. 13 is to require the winning bidder for a particular home at the annual tax foreclosure auction to live there for three years, in hopes of discouraging bidders who might be planning to rent it out or "flip" it for a quick profit.
Another strategy is to use some of the $150,000 in state funding that Lockport recently was awarded to combat zombie homes - vacant houses to which a mortgage holder has taken title - to make repairs to the houses to keep them from deteriorating further.
The city also is awaiting a final report from an economic development consultant on how to revitalize the South Street neighborhood, which borders the downtown business district.
The consultant is R. Charles Bell, the city's former planning and development director who now works for H. Sicherman & Co. He told the city's development agency board at a Dec. 1 meeting that his draft report includes 27 action items, which could include a proposal for the city to acquire abandoned properties itself and, instead of auctioning them off, to hold them in a land bank that would give the city more control over what happens to them.
"We're not treating everything as a silver bullet. We're coming at it from a variety of angles," said Brian M. Smith, Bell's successor as city planning and development chief.
He said the city might treat exterior building code violations on vacant houses in the same way the city enforces its ordinance requiring residents to mow their lawns. When the grass grows too tall, the city sends out a company to cut it and sends the property owner the bill. If it's not paid, it's added to the following year's taxes.
Mayor Anne E. McCaffrey said a law is being prepared for submission to the Common Council in early 2017 that would allow the city to do that for repairs to abandoned houses. A contractor would make the repairs and the city would try to gain reimbursement from the property owner.
McCaffrey said the contractor would make the repairs if a warning notice from the Building Inspection Department is ignored.
"At some point, that bill will be paid," she said. "We can't let these houses fall into disrepair."
The mayor said neighbors deserve to be protected from the effects of a deteriorating house.
Smith said $122,000 of the $150,000 in state aid is to be used for more building inspection staff, with $20,000 to be used as seed money for the contractor program.
The city has little legal power against such houses if the taxes are being paid, and in many cases they are being paid, either by out-of-town landlords or by big banks that hold the mortgage.
An example pointed to by Common Council President David R. Wohleben is a pair of houses at 271 and 281 Genesee St. "They've been boarded up for years," he said.
The owner of record is Raja Adimoolam of Staten Island, according to the City Assessor's Office.
"He's paying his taxes. We can't find him," Wohleben said.
Perhaps coupling summonses with city-funded building repairs might produce some improvement, he and other officials hope.
"I think that's going to work out very well," Chief Building Inspector Jason C. Dool said. "The struggle is contacting the person who owns the house."
A few years ago, the City of Niagara Falls began choosing houses off its auction list and requiring would-be buyers to live in them. Lockport will try that, too, and a house at 62 Hillcrest Drive has been selected as the guinea pig.
It's the first lot for sale at the annual foreclosure auction, set for 6 p.m. Dec. 13 in City Hall.
The house "is in the middle of a nice neighborhood," Smith said. "It's easier to work with a house in a neighborhood that isn't in severe decline."
The 49-year-old, 1,840-square-foot ranch house with a one-car attached garage is assessed at $106,800. Whoever buys it will be required to live in it for at least three years, or the house will revert to the city.
"It's completely possible that no one will bid on it with those restrictions," Smith said. "The property has warts. It needs a roof. The yard needs to be cleared. There are issues with floors and the basement."
If nobody is willing to buy it and live in it, the auctioneer will announce that the restrictive rules will be dropped, and the house will be up for bids in the usual way.
Bell, the consultant, told the board of the Greater Lockport Development Corp. that acquisition of available properties by the city, perhaps in a land bank format, might be a way to work on improving run-down neighborhoods.
The South Street study, which actually covers an area extending as far as High and South Transit streets, also calls for better infrastructure, such as improved sidewalks and more parking; more green space and recreational opportunities; and stepped-up code enforcement.
Bell said the area needs "a brand that's different from the existing brand," which all too often is tied to its frequent appearance on the police blotter.
Dool said state approval would be needed for the city to start a land bank, but if it did, "There would be a little more control." The city wouldn't have to take its chances on what an auction winner might do with a vacant house.
For the development corporation, whose usual focus is making grants and loans to businesses, working on improvement in a residential neighborhood might be seen as offbeat, if not off base.
But Smith asked, "What's the point of economic development if it doesn't create neighborhood revitalization?"