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Ex-cons to fix up 33 run-down houses bought by the city

The City of Buffalo recently obtained 33 vacant and run-down houses at a foreclosure auction that out-of-town landlords had all but abandoned.

Now, the city is getting ready to fix up the properties so they can be sold.

But instead of assigning city employees to the task, or hiring a construction firm, the city is turning to an organization that employs men and women just released from prison and jail.

If, as expected, the Common Council authorizes the Brown administration’s plan, the city will spend as much as $300,000 over the next two years to clean and fix the vacant houses. Ex-convicts transitioning back to society will do the work. Each participant earns $84.95 daily for 6 1/2 hours of work.

People convicted of everything from burglary and assault to vandalism could be doing minor maintenance repairs, light construction and painting as well as garbage cleanup and outdoor maintenance.

"This is to take it to the next level in terms of clearing out the houses and getting them ready for either sale or rehab," said Brendan Mehaffy, the head of the city’s Strategic Planning office. "Work needs to be done to remove garbage and debris and remediation of damage done to properties."

Beyond those basic tasks, the former convicts get an opportunity to learn additional skills, such as carpentry and lead abatement. Ten hours of OSHA training to learn about different types of hazardous material also will be offered to workers. The training can lead to certification in abatement and lead prevention in the workplace, said Gary Damon Jr., director of the Buffalo office of the program for "returning citizens" -  the Center for Employment Opportunities.

Workers from the Center for Employment Opportunities, who are either on parole or probation, clean up a vacant lot on East Ferry Street in a contract with the city, Thursday, March 9, 2017. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

The program is affiliated with the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, and is aimed at creating training opportunities for people who are either on parole or probation. They come to learn skills so they can become general laborers.

Their offenses range from misdemeanors to felonies; convicted sexual predators and arsonists are not allowed in the program. The Department of Corrections provides paid supervisors, who are trained, certified and will be on site with the workers at all times, Damon said.

The city obtained 50 houses in October’s foreclosure sale, hoping to break a cycle of absentee landlords abandoning city properties only to have them purchased by other absentee landlords at tax foreclosure sales. Tenants are living in 17 of the homes. The other 33 homes, all vacant, are located throughout the city, most on the East Side. Once the houses are fixed,the city plans to sell them to city residents who will live in them. The city also is talking about assisting potential homeowners obtain financing.

Hiring people released from prison enables the city to help some Buffalo residents get job training, while providing affordable housing for other city residents, city officials said.

Ninety percent of the participants who would work on the Buffalo houses are from Buffalo with others from Hamburg and Tonawanda.

"Some of them made mistakes with their lives. Some really want to change their lives around, and some have families and want to pick up trades," said Lonnie Angel, one of the on-site supervisors, who provide direct, line-of-sight management of the crews.

In addition to the on-the-job training, they also will be exposed to "soft skills" such as how best to work on a team and what to do when they encounter a negative situation, Damon said.

And the program also works to help participants get permanent jobs once their transitional employment is complete.

A job coach will work with the participants on resume writing. And a retention specialist starts working with them on Day One and continuing for a year thereafter, supporters say. After they are job-start ready, the participants then will move on to a job developer who works with more than 90 businesses and industries in Erie County.

"We help them learn skills and get different types of credentials to ensure they are employable and ready for work," Damon said.

The city has worked with the program in the past through the Mayor’s Impact team, but this is the first time Buffalo is considering contracting with the agency to work on housing, Mehaffy said.

Since opening in Buffalo in 2009, CEO has helped more than 1,400 people returning from prison to develop workplace skills by providing them with immediate transitional employment, job coaching and job placement, Damon said.

"This is a fantastic model, especially for returning citizens," said Council President Darius G. Pridgen. "There are very few options for them."

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