By Henry Louis Taylor
Last week The Buffalo News reported that a Ponzi scheme by Kuwaiti real estate investor Abdul Aziz HouHou left a “trail of blight in Buffalo” after buying, brokering and selling more than 160 houses in Buffalo.
According to The News, HouHou and his investors littered and left the city’s communities with boarded-up and vacant, deteriorating, demolished, burned-down and vandalized houses.
First and foremost, these neighborhoods were blighted long before HouHou came to Buffalo. Blight does not happen overnight or even in a few years. Neighborhood decline takes decades.
The majority of houses purchased by HouHou were located on the East Side, where the city’s most underdeveloped and marginalized neighborhoods are found. The handful of houses not located on the East Side are scattered throughout Black Rock-Riverside, the West Side and South Buffalo.
The news cited 43 Goembel Ave., a dwelling unit located in the Genesee-Moselle community. This housing unit is adjacent to other abandoned houses and is situated in a neighborhood characterized by unkempt vacant lots and poorly maintained sidewalks and streets. HouHou is a criminal, but other business people and city officials are truly guilty of blighting the East Side.
A 2017 housing opportunity strategy study commissioned by the city found that most East Side housing units are moderately to severely distressed and located in underdeveloped neighborhoods with low market demand.
HouHou should be punished for his racketeering, but more important, Buffalo’s prime blighters should be exposed. The real predatory profiteers are the rental property owners who make hyper-profits by charging high rents for poorly maintained and distressed rental housing units, and the land speculators who purchase properties and hold onto them without making any improvements until more profitable opportunities can be found.
The City of Buffalo is also complicit in the East Side neighborhood blight. The city poorly maintains sidewalks, streets and vacant lots in those neighborhoods. And, their shamefully weak rental registration process makes possible the existence of a prosperous low-income rental market that exploits the poor and those on the economic margin.
Worse yet, the city’s failure to enforce existing building codes is what sustains the hyper-profitability of the East Side’s low-income housing market.
HouHou is corrupt. And some may argue that money and resources should be used to investigate and charge his U.S. associates. But, I would suggest those resources be better used to investigate the exploitative East Side landlords and speculators, and complicit city government officials who are truly responsible for leaving a trail of blight in Buffalo.
Henry Louis Taylor Jr., Ph.D., is director of the UB Center for Urban Studies.