New-Build Apartment Plans Draws Protests

Fri, Jul 10th 2009 04:00 pm
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Heart of the City Neighborhoods, a West Side housing nonprofit geared toward development and rehabilitation, has been working for five years to acquire state funding for two new buildings on Hudson Street between Plymouth and West Avenues. Last month, they received the sizable grant from New York’s Housing Trust Fund Corporation to break ground on eight rental units.

When a local community development organization gets a $1.5 million grant to build affordable, green housing, it’s usually cause for celebration. But some lower West Side residents don’t think this project is right for their community. They want Heart of the City to rescind the grant to create rental apartments and focus on what they do best: rehabbing existing properties into owner-occupied homes.

The three lots in question are surrounded by two vacant buildings and are overburdened with weeds and trash. Two of the lots have been vacant for almost 20 years and the house on the third burned down in 2001. The proposed plans call for two townhouse-style buildings with four units each that will complement the historic style of the neighborhood. The units will contain two to three bedrooms and are designed to be as green as possible: Energy-efficient appliances and heat-saving windows will be installed.

“There’s a misconception of affordable housing in Buffalo. It’s affordable until you pay the heat bill,” says Isabel Hartenberg, a board member of Heart of the City.

This development is part of the organization’s long-term Hudson Street Revitalization Initiative, which included the completed renovation of 263 Hudson Street, which is currently back on the market for an income-qualified, first-time homebuyer. Stephanie Simeon, executive director of Heart of the City, says the project came about through a market research study the agency conducted. Ideally, a person should be spending 30 percent of his annual income on housing, but the canvass found that residents in the neighborhood were paying upwards of 50 to 60 percent of their income for rent.

“Renting is not a crime,” Hartenberg says. “Not everybody owns a house. Not everybody can. We do a lot for owner occupants, but we have a responsibility to all the residents, not only the owners.”

Heart of the City has two more hurdles to pass before ground can be broken: approval from the city’s Preservation and Planning Boards. The plans passed through the boards five years ago, but the consent has expired and procedurally needs to be approved again before building can begin. “We’ve been talking about this for five years, so some people are just glad to see something happening,” Simeon says.

Others, however, are not. Fourteen residents in the immediate area of the Hudson Street lots gathered last Monday to express their concerns to New York State Assemblymember Sam Hoyt, who represents the district. Hoyt has publicly championed the project and wrote a letter of support to the grant committee based on Heart of the City’s track record and the plan’s green component. “My letter of support speaks volumes and my confidence in Heart of the City is great,” Hoyt says.

Residents told Hoyt that they felt left out of Heart of the City’s plans. The nonprofit agency had reached out to them during the initial stages of the grant process, but in the five years it took to get the money, they say, the communication slowed. “We feel like we have not been included,” says Lauren Kostek, a Hudson Street homeowner. “I’m hard-pressed to find anybody that’s not opposed to it.”

The residents presented Hoyt with a letter of nearly 50 signatures of opposition and Kostek says she will do more canvassing to add to that list.

The greatest concern expressed by Kostek and her allies is that the units would be rentals. “We just can’t babysit another building,” says Kostek. “We want to get them to see the amount of people that are right near this project that don’t want it. They’re supposed to be working with the neighborhood.”

Simeon says that she sees clearly the residents’ concerns about more rental properties in the area, but feels this project has been planned carefully enough to dodge any bullets. “Some people think we have enough rentals,” Simeon says. “I’m not disagreeing with them at all, but what we’re addressing is having housing for families that can afford it. We found that families are the key in stabilizing neighborhoods…We want to make sure we do it right, but that’s it’s done successfully.”

Hoyt says he wishes there had been development much sooner. When Heart of the City’s plans came across his desk, he felt it was the best use for the land. “I recognize as much as anyone that owner-occupied homes are the best thing for any neighborhood, but a mix is the reality,” Hoyt says. “I’m very familiar with the neighborhood and this site has remained vacant and unsightly, weed-infested and overgrown…I wish however long the property’s been vacant, a civic-minded individual would have built a single-family home there, but that hasn’t happened.”

Aaron Bartley-executive director of PUSH Buffalo, another West Side nonprofit-has a unique perspective on the controversy. As the leader of a successful housing development organization, he thinks an area needs a mix of homeowners and rentals, but also a mix of incomes and backgrounds to make it a diverse place to live. As a resident of the lower West Side, he sees the cash injection as a positive step for developing the area. “Neighborhood stabilization takes a lot of flexibility, which includes both home ownerships and rentals,” he says. “Buffalo needs high-quality affordable rentals. I support the idea that the neighborhood needs a $1.5 million investment.”

“Neighborhood stabilization takes a lot of flexibility, which includes both home ownerships and rentals. Buffalo needs high-quality affordable rentals. I support the idea that the neighborhood needs a $1.5 million investment.”
Aaron Bartley
Executive Director
PUSH Buffalo

Another concern of the community used to dealing with absentee landlords is whether the property will be managed diligently. Hudson Street homeowner Dawn Drummer-a board member of Heart of the City who says she quit over this project-is worried about Heart of the City getting into a property management position, which would be a new role for the organization. “You can’t say what will happen after the ribbon-cutting, two years down the line,” says Drummer, who thinks Heart of the City should keep doing what it does best-carry out gut rehabs on homes and making them owner-occupied-instead of stepping in a new direction.

Simeon herself has experience managing more than 100 units and is a former realtor. Heart of the City will act as property manager, and costs have been built into the rent for accounting, maintenance, and snow plowing in winter. There will be a zero tolerance and annual eligibility reviews for renters, Simeon says. Parking will be in the rear, and Simeon hopes to install a garden. Renters must be income qualified, earning between $27,000 and $54,000 a year.

“A property owner can get pitbulls and make crystal meth in his basement every bit as easily as a renter,” says Paul Morgan, a resident of the nearby Cottage District and supporter of Heart of the City’s plan.Past projects that Heart of the City has completed include renovating an ailing commercial building at 667 Main Street into Buffalo’s first downtown hostel. They have also rehabbed three properties on Plymouth Avenue and another at 263 Hudson Street, and plan to begin work on another property on nearby Whitney Place. The organization has been in Buffalo since 1998.

Heart of the City will host a meeting to address residents’ concerns at 6pm on Monday, July 13, at the Theatre of Youth at 203 Allen Street. In the meantime, Heart of the City is still looking forward to a spring 2010 groundbreaking.

“People will ultimately be pleased,” Hartenberg says. “It looks good. It’s got all the amenities it needs to have to be a positive addition to the neighborhood.”

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