Local leaders and city housing advocates said they are thrilled Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is earmarking some of the Buffalo Billion for the region's hardest hit residential neighborhoods.
After focusing much of the state's efforts here on job growth and business development, Cuomo turned his attention Thursday to Buffalo's East Side housing, unveiling a $10 million, three-year initiative to boost home ownership, repair homes, prevent foreclosures and target zombie properties in depressed parts of Buffalo and bordering neighborhoods in Cheektowaga.
"I think I had tears in my eyes when I was sitting in the front row listening to his speech," said Cheektowaga Town Supervisor Diane Benczkowski. "I'm just so excited. We have been faced with a huge problem with zombie properties."
Cuomo announced that the state will invest money from the Buffalo Billion II program into a three-pronged neighborhood stabilization effort. The state will spend $4.4 million in the first year to begin work on nearly 250 homes this year.
The first phase will include:
- $1.4 million to repair and sell to new homeowners 28 city-owned vacant and abandoned East Side properties.
- $2 million to assist families at elevated risk of losing their homes due to high maintenance and energy costs.
- $1 million for an anti-foreclosure measure to keep owners in their homes.
The governor previously focused his Buffalo Billion efforts toward job creation and infrastructure that promotes economic growth.
But on Thursday, he stated that these efforts cannot be done at the expense of ignoring struggling neighborhoods. He highlighted his experience as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.
"We're not truly a success until we have shared that success with the entire community," Cuomo said. "Now for the East Side, we know there are tough challenges. We know there are real problems, but we also know how to deal with it. We've learned these lessons. We know how to do comprehensive community development."
Stephanie J. Simeon, executive director of Heart of the City Neighborhoods, said she was happy to hear Cuomo has recognized the needs of struggling residential communities and redirected Buffalo Billion money to support them. The fact that this is a multi-year plan instead of a one-year grant makes a big difference, she said.
"To have multi-year funding means he's in it to win it," she said.
Though her housing organization focuses primarily on the West Side, and Benczkowski is supervisor of a neighboring town, both agreed that an intensive focus of resources on the East Side is vital to neighborhood stabilization.
The $1.4 million allocation in a partnership with the City of Buffalo will rehabilitate 28 city-owned vacant and abandoned East Side properties that will be made available for purchase. The goal is to stabilize neighborhoods and stop the spread of blight by targeting vacant properties on blocks where most other homes are occupied.
The first homes will be ready for new occupants to move in by this fall, Empire State Development Corp. CEO Howard Zemsky said. As those homes are sold, the proceeds will be reinvested in additional homes.
The second element earmarks $2 million to help about 200 families at risk of losing their homes due to high maintenance costs. Non-profit organizations will help homeowners access money for weatherization, repair and lead remediation programs.
Finally, the state will target zombie properties, in which homes are effectively abandoned by a homeowner during the foreclosure process, and are left in limbo by banks without a new owner. The result is a neglected house with no one taking responsibility for it.
The state will spend $1 million to prevent that by having the State of New York Mortgage Agency buy mortgages for 17 properties now facing foreclosure on the East Side and in Cheektowaga. Officials will then provide counseling to each borrower and reach out to lenders to modify loans, possibly reducing the amount owed.
If a homeowner can't afford the reduced mortgage or no longer wants to own a home, the state Division of Homes and Community Renewal will work with nonprofits to help the homeowner get a fresh start while maintaining, repairing and reselling the property.
"Housing is the heart of the community. It is the building block," Cuomo said at the Buffalo event. "You need stability. You need a roof over your head. And that's what we want to start today."
Cuomo acknowledged that the investment is only part of what's needed on the East Side, citing more jobs and business growth, as well as additional efforts to strengthen the community.
But he said it's at least a start.
"Ten million dollars will go far," he said. "It's not the end-all, be all. But it's still a lot of money."