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Buffalo reassessed: Uneven growth belies citywide renaissance

The new assessments suggest three separate, divergent stories have played out in Buffalo: steady growth in wealthy, well-established neighborhoods; dramatic spikes in adjoining areas; and little net appreciation on large tracts of the East Side, particularly the far East Side along the border with Cheektowaga.

Iris Cintron bought her vinyl-sided double on Buffalo’s East Side for $42,500 two decades ago. Since then, the 57-year-old administrative assistant has poured thousands of dollars into upgrades to juice the value of the 92-year-old home.

There were new doors for the detached three-car garage. A fresh roof, when its shingles began to curl. Cintron replaced siding, laid tiles and soaked up enviable stories of city homeowners made rich by the recent market boom.

But when her preliminary assessment arrived in the mail earlier this year, Cintron learned – to her “shock” – that her house is worth less now, when adjusted for inflation, than on the day in 1998 when she moved to Schiller Park.

“Everybody else’s jumped really high,” she said. “So I thought it was going to be higher than that … I thought it was going to be equal to any other neighborhood. And it isn’t.”

Thousands of East Side homeowners face similar losses under the reassessment project, a Buffalo News analysis of more than 60,000 residential assessment records shows. The data, obtained from the City of Buffalo through a Freedom of Information Law request, document a stark and widening gap between Buffalo’s most and least prosperous neighborhoods.

Home values rose, on average. That's a critical change in a long-ailing market. But the improvement remains concentrated in a handful of high-growth neighborhoods and among an upper echelon of wealthy homeowners, leaving neighborhoods like Schiller Park even further behind the likes of Parkside or Elmwood Bidwell.

“You have growth in value,” said George Palumbo, an economist at Canisius College who reviewed The News’ data. “But I have a hard time believing that there's been a citywide renaissance or anything like that.”

The Buffalo News analyzed figures from the city’s preliminary property assessment rolls, which the tax office completed in August following a four-year revaluation process. While assessments are inexact mirrors of a property’s worth, they do approximate housing values on a uniform, citywide basis.

Because the city had not comprehensively reassessed since 2001, this year’s assessments are also the first to reflect the market upswing that started in 2010.

But while assessed home values doubled – even quintupled – in some neighborhoods, the new assessments suggest three separate, divergent stories have played out in Buffalo: steady growth in wealthy, well-established neighborhoods; dramatic spikes in adjoining areas; and little net appreciation on large tracts of the East Side, particularly the far East Side along the border with Cheektowaga.

“There’s this narrative that a wave of gentrification is sweeping across the City of Buffalo, and there are certain areas where there is concern regarding that pressure,” said Brendan Mehaffy, the executive director of Buffalo’s Office of Strategic Planning. “But for the most part, in many of our neighborhoods … displacement isn't caused by [gentrification, but by] a decline in neighborhood conditions.”

On a citywide basis, homeowners in the wealthiest fifth of Buffalo neighborhoods saw property values jump 71%, versus 47% everywhere else. High-value homes also appreciated more than the city overall, with the top fifth of city homes – those assessed at more than $159,000 – clocking a median assessment increase of 86%, or $111,000.

In Schiller Park, however, as in much of Lovejoy, Kenfield and Kensington-Bailey, unadjusted residential assessments rose by less than 20% – a rate far lower than inflation over the same period. Hundreds of other properties lost value since the last assessment.

From her second-story porch on Walden Avenue, Cintron can see several such homes: a dull green-grey cottage, a rambling craftsman, a pale mint-sided double. That double, bought for $88,000 two decades ago, was assessed at a full market value of $62,000 now. A similar home just east of Elmwood Avenue saw its assessed market value jump 350%, to $284,000.

“We were not surprised,” said Flora Williams, who has lived on the far East Side for almost 30 years.

“We look around and we can see that the rebirth hasn’t hit this part of town,” she added.

In these neighborhoods, where some 34% of homes are owner-occupied, many residents say they’re happy to see property taxes fall under the new assessments. Unlike low- and middle-income homeowners on parts of the West Side, they won’t face ballooning tax bills next year.

But in the long term, stagnant home values on the far East Side also limit their owners’ household wealth. They make it difficult for families to relocate, should they choose to, or to leverage their house to pay major expenses.

(Mark Mulville/News file photo)

Worse, for neighborhoods such as Schiller Park, low home prices discourage owners from investing in their properties or conducting routine maintenance – contributing to substandard rentals, vacancy, crime and, in a classic chicken-or-egg plight, further devaluation and disinvestment. One evaluation of Buffalo’s housing market, conducted by the national urban planning firm czb LLC in 2017, warned that in some city neighborhoods “the housing market has collapsed and is unresponsive to stimulation or correction.”

“You hear a lot about the people whose assessments went up,” said Cintron, whose home depreciated by almost $900. “But this matters, too.”

She had planned to downsize to a condo on Delaware Avenue. Now, she said, she fears she’ll need to take out another mortgage in retirement if she wants to move.

‘No new money’

Two blocks away, in a stately brick double on Walden Avenue, retiree Tillman Ward has made a similar calculation. While his home is now assessed at $62,000 – more than the $49,000 he saw on his last tax bill – he says he expected to see far more, given the two decades of work and maintenance he put into it. Lately, Tillman said, he’s become so fed up with his neighborhood that he’s thought about selling and moving south to Dallas. But he’ll now have less money than planned for the transition.

“If I eat bologna sandwiches for the next 20 years, maybe I can make it work,” he said.

There are still traces, Tillman acknowledges, of the Schiller Park he moved to almost 20 years ago. Many of its streets, though cracked and potholed in spots, are lined with maples and lindens and snug bungalows. Its porches are stocked with folding chairs and American flags; its sidewalks congest, in the late afternoon, with schoolchildren and dog walkers.

Tillman Ward stands in front of his home on Walden Ave in Buffalo Tuesday, November 26, 2019. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

In September, the Buffalo Academy of Science Charter School opened its middle-grade campus in the former P.S. 11. Up Bailey Avenue, the long-shuttered St. Gerard Catholic Church also reopened this year as a mosque.

At the same time, Ward has tangled with the “slumlords” who own neighboring houses and the drug dealers who work the sidewalk outside his house. No one comes to the neighborhood cleanups he convenes. He no longer sits on his front porch.

City foreclosure maps have, for years, branded Schiller Park a “hot spot” – an area where foreclosure remains both common and widespread.

“I love the neighborhood, and I sure would like to see a turnaround,” Ward said, “but I can’t get my wife to take a walk outside with me. I have to go to Hertel to get a good sandwich. I’m just trying to find ways to make it livable again.”

Those sorts of complaints, while not shared by all of Ward's neighbors, also moderate home values. Realtors and economists say that would-be buyers who plan to live in their homes will pay far more to locate in vibrant, growing neighborhoods near major institutions, schools and commercial corridors, regardless of a prospective property’s size and condition.

They will also pay more to live in white neighborhoods than black ones, on average. As in other segregated cities, homes in Buffalo’s black neighborhoods are valued one-third less than equivalent homes in white neighborhoods, said Andre Perry, a researcher studying housing and inequality at the Brookings Institution, a nonpartisan think tank. The News’ analysis also found that assessments rose least in Buffalo’s least-white neighborhoods.

Roughly 80% of Schiller Park’s 9,600 residents are black, according to census data. Residents say the rest are white, Bangladeshi and Puerto Rican.

“You’ll hear this all the time: ‘It’s the market. The invisible hand,’ ” Perry said. “Well, the demand and the overall market have a lot to do with individual decisions, and not just [the decisions] of the people living in these communities.”

Decades of abandonment and disinvestment also took their toll on the far East Side. Ken Davis, a retired railroad engineer, remembers a time when most of his neighbors were white retirees who grew up in the area. When they moved out or died, their homes often went vacant or sold to investors.

Ken Davis is a long-time homeowner in the Buffalo neighborhood at Schiller Park, which saw the smallest increase in adjusted property values. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

Roofing leaks and broken windows went unfixed, Davis said. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York logged a spike in foreclosure rates. Purchased by out-of-town investors, dozens of homes along the Cheektowaga border cycled through successive rounds of foreclosures and city auctions, said Jocelyn Gordon, the executive director of the Buffalo Erie Niagara Land Improvement Corporation.

By 1997, when Lovejoy Council Member Richard Fontana first took office, the problem had grown so visible that one Cheektowaga politician warned him every street in Schiller Park would “fall to blight one-by-one.” Fontana, who campaigned against falling property values in the district, maintains that hasn’t happened.

Since 2007, the city has approved more than 2,800 demolition permits in Schiller Park, public records show. And between 2000 and 2016, the population of Schiller Park residents living below the poverty line increased from roughly one quarter to more than 40%.

Today, neighbors lament persistent crime: Schiller Park’s homicide rate is now among the city’s highest. They also complain that city government does too little to police the conditions of rental properties or encourage new investment in the neighborhood, particularly compared to the public investments made on the Lower West Side and near the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus.

“There’s no new money coming into this neighborhood,” Davis said. “It’s almost like [the renters] have been chased out of other communities. They can’t afford the West Side or downtown anymore … and that’s pushing people in this direction.”

‘Parts of Buffalo … are never coming back’

New investments are coming, city officials say, particularly as the East Side “stabilizes.” They point out that the market has already improved over the past 15 years, when home values dropped under widespread abandonment, even before adjusting for inflation.

New programs at City Hall have sought to help homeowners avoid foreclosure and move key abandoned properties to the Land Bank. The city has also poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into recent infrastructure and streetscape improvements for Schiller Park, including $700,000 of maintenance for the eponymous park itself.

Next year, officials also hope to launch new beautification projects on thoroughfares like East Delavan Avenue and Genesee Street, adding flags and planters. And they’re hopeful that at least a trickle of the more than $60 million earmarked for the East Side through the Buffalo Billion initiative will make its way to Schiller Park for storefront upgrades, homeowner assistance, and other neighborhood programs.

“We’re just warming up,” said Bryan Bollman, Fontana’s senior legislative aide and the Lovejoy councilman-elect. “When you look at the before and after, you won’t recognize it.”

But it’s no simple task to correct what Cornell University geographer Russell Weaver calls Buffalo’s “dual city trajectory." An effective strategy, planners and housing economists say, would encompass not only the quality of housing stock on the East Side and the desirability and accessibility of East Side neighborhoods, but also fundamental structural issues including racism, low incomes, poor credit and limited mortgage schemes that prevent low-income renters from becoming homeowners.

A view of the East Side showing Bailey Avenue, looking north near Kensington Avenue. (Derek Gee/News file photo)

Planners say Buffalo also faces an insurmountable mismatch in housing supply and demand: Even if every home on the East Side was in livable condition, there are still more houses than people interested and able to buy them.

“The truth is, there are parts of Buffalo that are never coming back – not in my lifetime and not in yours either,” said Charles Buki, the founding president of czb, which prepared the city’s 2017 housing report.

And yet, some Schiller Park homeowners still insist the experts and assessors underestimate them. They point to mowed lawns and new driveways and devoted block clubs. They invoke the recent influx of immigrants from Bangladesh.

Those newcomers, in particular, have opened shops and fixed up old houses, preventing them from falling into speculators’ hands. Fontana, who is also a licensed real estate agent, sold a two-bedroom brick ranch to an immigrant family in November. The house, which sits two down from Tillman Ward’s, went for $114,000 – a rare price in this neighborhood, and double its assessed market value of $56,666.

“It has be heartening to you that the property sold for above-asking,” Fontana told Ward after a recent meeting of the St. Mary's Road Block Club. Some two dozen homeowners milled around in the background, putting on winter coats and picking at the pizza donated by a local corner store.

Ward nodded. But another Realtor had told him, just a week prior, that home values were falling all along Walden.

“It’s crazy,” he told Fontana. “I hate living like this, man.”

 

 

 

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