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Another Voice: Steps city can take to stabilize neighborhoods

By Stephen Paskey

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo recently unveiled a $10 million initiative to stabilize Buffalo’s East Side neighborhoods. The plan is remarkable, but it underscores a serious lack of leadership by Mayor Byron Brown and Buffalo’s Common Council. As a law professor who’s living in and renovating a formerly vacant house on Buffalo’s West Side, I know too well what the city could be doing, but isn’t. Here are five steps the city could take without waiting for help from Albany.

First, the city should give tax credits to homeowners who buy a house at the tax foreclosure auction and renovate the house as their residence. I know firsthand how welcome the help would be. After buying my house for $18,000 at the auction, I’ve spent $40,000 on repairs and hundreds of hours doing small jobs myself. The city hands out tax credits to developers like candy at Halloween. If they did the same for homeowners, more people would follow the path I’ve taken.

Second, the city should revise tax auction rules to give preference to homeowners over “flippers” and other so-called “investors” who aim to make a quick buck at Buffalo’s expense. In recent years, auction prices have soared as out-of-state investors scoop up properties. And all too often, hardworking Buffalo residents who hope to own their own home are being outbid.

Third, the city should revive the dormant “dollar house” homesteading program. In 2014, the city told me that every available house had been sold or marked for demolition. Under the governor’s initiative, the state will spend $1.4 million rehabilitating 28 city-owned houses. Had the city acted promptly, homesteaders would already occupy those same houses.

Fourth, the city should improve procedures for selling surplus city property. An acquaintance spent a year trying to buy a vacant city-owned house, and was told repeatedly that the city’s real estate department “lost” his paperwork. Today, the house is being lovingly restored. Had he been less persistent, it would have been demolished. Unfortunately, his experience is typical.

Fifth, the city should enact a tough vacant property registration ordinance, something many U.S. cities have done. Such ordinances require the owners of vacant property to register, pay an annual fee, post contact information and follow strict maintenance rules.

I’m told the city’s law department has been working on an ordinance for over two years. It’s past time to get it done.

If the city implemented these measures, the benefit to Buffalo’s neighborhoods would be tremendous. Housing activists undoubtedly can suggest further improvements. Mayor Brown and the Common Council should sit down soon with interested parties, gather ideas and make things happen without further delay.

Stephen Paskey, of Buffalo, teaches legal analysis, writing and research at the University at Buffalo School of Law.

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