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Editorial: Buffalo residents experience a property tax paradox

The City of Buffalo’s rebirth in the past decade is neither a rising tide that has lifted all boats, nor a Potemkin village made of smoke and mirrors. The truth, which doesn’t fit as handily into a tweet or on a bumper sticker, is more complicated.

A recent story in The Buffalo News about residential property tax assessments in the city showed how sticker shock can affect homeowners at both the high and low ends of the economic spectrum when their assessments arrive. Observers noted that we do not have a “citywide renaissance,” an aspirational goal worth striving for, even if the stark realities of poverty make it difficult.

There are winners and losers in any economy. That does not mean we can’t celebrate victories, nor can we turn our back on those who are left out.

It’s easy to forget how downtown looked at the start of the 2010s, before the Buffalo Billion program and Terry and Kim Pegula’s investments helped spark the city’s transformation around Canalside. A parking lot stood on the site now occupied by LECOM Harborcenter. Buffalo and Erie County Naval & Military Park was a quiet spot along the river. Many of the restaurants, bars and hotels that make up downtown nightlife did not yet exist.

Then cranes went up. Investments of public money paved the way for private development. Now we have a flourishing Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, an Outer Harbor that was brought back to life, RiverWorks, Hotel @ the Lafayette, the new version of the Explore & More children’s museum, and many other new attractions.

Buffalo’s comeback is well under way, but there is much work still to be done.

The results of the city’s preliminary tax reassessments are literally all over the map. Rising property values in Elmwood Village, Allentown and parts of the West Side, for example, are a good news-bad news proposition. No one enjoys paying more in property taxes, but there is consolation in knowing one’s home is an appreciable asset.

For residents of the sections of the city with stagnant or declining values, such as the University and Lovejoy districts, there is some solace in looking forward to a possibly lower tax bill.

The paradoxes of property value disparities also throw light on the issue of gentrification. As Brendan Mehaffy, the executive director of Buffalo’s Office of Strategic Planning, told The News’ Caitlin Dewey, the narrative about gentrification “sweeping across the City of Buffalo” is inaccurate.

Sharply rising property values near the Medical Campus do cause anxiety for some homeowners and tenants in the Fruit Belt. But there are many other neighborhoods, Mehaffy said, where displacement is not caused by gentrification, but by “a decline in neighborhood conditions.”

There are no quick fixes for income inequality and privation. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Buffalo has the third-highest percentage of residents living below the official poverty line among U.S. cities. The bureau’s most recent American Community Survey says that 30.9% of Buffalo residents meet the definition of living in poverty. Only Detroit and Cleveland have higher rates.

The State of New York this year committed $50 million for infrastructure improvements and aid to small businesses on the East Side. Developers from the private sector will need to step up and invest more in East Side neighborhoods.

After Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and Mayor Byron W. Brown announced the East Side Initiative in March, developer Jake Schneider told The News he was looking for new projects to undertake there.
“There has been more progress” on the East Side in the last five years than in the previous 25, Schneider said.

Hope and promises don’t pay the bills for people who can’t make ends meet, but they are a start. Without ambitious plans for a brighter future, and resources to back them up, Buffalo’s momentum would stall, something we can ill afford.

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