It is indisputably a good thing that New York State is paying attention to the East Side of Buffalo through the Buffalo Billion II program. The question that needs to be asked is how much the $10 million in question will actually be able to accomplish and if it will be spent in a way that foments change rather than papers over that area’s complex and long-standing problems.
Nevertheless, it is critical for attention to be paid to the city’s East Side, not just its downtown and other obvious areas. So it’s encouraging that the state will launch a three-year initiative focused on East Side homes: increasing ownership, funding repairs, preventing foreclosures and targeting zombie properties in depressed parts of Buffalo and bordering neighborhoods in Cheektowaga.
It will be a three-pronged approach to stabilizing the neighborhood, beginning with a $4.4 million commitment to begin work on nearly 250 homes this year. The first phase will include providing:
• $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 project is a tacit acknowledgement that Buffalo’s revival requires more than economic development, though that appropriately remains the main focus of the Buffalo Billion. In the nation’s third-poorest city, success will mean attacking that dynamic.
Purposely or not, the project also stands to benefit the re-election campaign of Mayor Byron W. Brown, who has been criticized for paying insufficient attention to such issues. In addition to being mayor, Brown is chairman of the State Democratic Party.
The project is being undertaken in partnership with the city. The goal is to stabilize neighborhoods and stop the spread of blight. Importantly, that begins by targeting vacant properties that undermine residential blocks where most other homes are occupied.
“Housing is the heart of the community. It is the building block,” Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said in announcing the initiative. “You need stability. You need a roof over your head. And that’s what we want to start today.”
The first homes are expected to be ready for reoccupation by this fall, Empire State Development Corp. CEO Howard Zemsky said. As those homes are sold, the proceeds will be reinvested in additional homes.
Zemsky, who in his other life is a successful Buffalo developer, has shown himself to be adept at reclaiming neighborhoods. It was his work and vision that turned a depressed area into the thriving Larkinville district east of downtown. His influence will be critical to the success of this new effort.
It won’t be easy or fast. The city’s revival could help, but if overcoming poverty and blight were simple, it would have happened long ago and around the nation. Complex and interwoven issues are at work.
Still, there is reason for optimism. The East Side, with its lower property values, has attracted many of the immigrants who have settled in Buffalo. Just the fact of new residents can make a difference in a neighborhood and, as the record has shown, most refugees become net contributors to their new neighborhoods after an initial period of adjustment.
And this isn’t the first time the Buffalo Billion has targeted the East Side. The Northland Avenue Belt Line Corridor project is a $60 million effort to create a job training and light industrial hub. It’s a big undertaking that is already underway with some demolition on East Delavan Avenue. It could make a difference.
The Buffalo Billion, of course, is mainly known for its big economic development initiatives, including the RiverBend project where SolarCity will soon begin production at what will be the largest solar panel manufacturing plant in the Western Hemisphere. It is expected to be a game changer for the city, putting it in the forefront of a 21st century industry that should have decades of relevance.
Other projects include the Buffalo Information Technologies Innovation and Commercialization Hub, the 43North business competition, Buffalo Manufacturing Works and more. With those efforts and others, including the development of Canalside and the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, the city’s heart is beating in a way that it hasn’t in generations. But for the work to be considered rounded and complete, it must also put its poorer neighborhoods on a path to revival.
The $10 million project announced last week is a down payment on that work. Alone, it won’t solve the problems, but it could be a start if the city and state learn from their mistakes, maintain focus and refuse to let up.