Ordering lobster from gourmet food trucks in Buffalo, New York, might’ve been ambitious a decade ago. Now, it happens weekly.
The food trucks that line Buffalo’s Larkin Square on Tuesdays during the warm summer months attract locals from all over the city, including its suburbs. But its lack of diversity is what shocks me most: Almost half of the city’s population are people of color, yet nearly everyone in the park is white.
Even the music reflects this fact, with a boomer-aged jam band rocking covers of Jethro Tull and Chicago.
I’m being shown around the square by Kayla Zemsky, a project manager with her family’s company, Larkin Development Group. Her family is responsible for some of Buffalo’s most well-known revitalization projects, including the newly built parklet that we’re wandering around that night. But the square, along with many other Zemsky family developments, are notorious among locals, who talk about how these kinds of developments have brought about gentrification in parts of this economically depressed city.
Zemsky tells me about the importance of revitalizing old neighborhoods, where abandoned and blighted homes litter residential streets (Buffalo has one of the largest shares of abandoned homes and properties in the state).
It’s all part of an idea to make Buffalo economically viable again, which appears to be working: A newly revitalized city is bringing back tourists through its architecture and history, and the city’s nightlife and cocktail culture has been drawing in travel and leisure writers en masse.
But the money flowing into the city seems to benefit only certain people — or at least that’s what longtime locals and activists tell me.
“We cost the same as downtown Chicago right now,” says Sage Green, a community advocate at People United for Sustainable Housing, or PUSH Buffalo, a housing rights group.“That’s unreal; $1,500 a month in Buffalo blows my fucking mind.”
That should, indeed, blow everyone’s mind, if only for the fact that despite Buffalo’s current boom, it maintains its status as one of the nation’s poorest large cities.
The increase in the city’s property values and rents have made it one of the top 10 cities with the fastest-growing rents in the nation. Much of that bump has to do with the city’s real-estate boom: developers get close to 40 percent in tax breaks to build on Buffalo’s historic building stock — some of the most well-preserved architecture in the nation. And the state has coughed up $1 billion in a stimulus spending plan to help make Buffalo more attractive for tech manufacturers, including Tesla.
Despite an increase in popularity and interest in Buffalo, by and large the city’s residents haven’t seen the same benefits. Wages have only increased marginally, and employment in the city continues to be focused on retail and service work — much of which are by and large minimum wage jobs. As a result, people who could barely afford their mortgages or property taxes before are now in dire straits and at risk of losing their homes.
But Green’s group, PUSH, is working to keep residents in their homes by doing the most basic of renovations to the city’s old homes: insulating them.
October in Buffalo is a tense time for thousands of local homeowners. It’s the time of year when many find out if soon they will be homeless.
Every year, the city puts on an auction of homes whose homeowners have been in arrears with their property taxes or sewage fees. If you are behind any amount above $200, your home could be foreclosed on by the city.
“It used to be even lower than that,” says Gretchen Gonzalez, deputy director for the Volunteer Lawyers Project, a group that helps homeowners who have defaulted on their taxes work out payment plans to keep their homes. “A lot of our clients are economically disadvantaged people who live paycheck to paycheck. For those people, it just takes one tragedy or one lost job to end up behind. And these are people whose homes have been in their families for generations.”
Over a third of Buffalo’s residents are homeowners, with houses willed down or bought for cheap when the city’s economy was still spiraling downward.
And until recently, it was relatively cheap to be a Buffalo homeowner.
In 2013, most of Buffalo’s housing stock was priced between $30-60,000. Now, with Buffalo’s boom, more homes are now worth $70-90,000, according to recent ACS one-year survey numbers.
And with rising property values come a rise in property taxes, which are expected to dramatically increase with property reevaluations underway. The last time Buffalo did property reevaluations was in 2010, which has translated into less taxes — about 40 percent less than expected — coming into a city that has seen an exceptional boom in home values.
But increased property taxes is an issue for a city in which almost half of its residents live paycheck to paycheck and where 51 percent of its children live in poverty. As of now, between 2006 and 2018, an average of close to 3,000 homes every year are threatened on the auction block for failure to pay taxes.
Housing advocates worry that the number is sure to rise after the city finishes its reevaluation next year.
“We’re certainly thrilled to see Buffalo’s economic turnaround, but it’s going to affect homeowners. And if people are having a hard time making ends meet right now, it’s only going to get worse,” says Kevin Quinn, an attorney with the Center for Law and Justice who has been representing dozens of homeowners in the past few months leading up to the city’s foreclosure auctions, which happen in mid-October.
But the cost of home ownership in Buffalo goes beyond property taxes. Before the recent housing developments in Buffalo overtook the market, residential areas were made up of homes that were built at the turn of the last century.
“All of these homes are old, old, old,” says Luana DeJesus, a program assistant at PUSH. “You better believe many of them don’t have proper insulation… A lot of people don’t even know what proper insulation is. And without that, you’re looking at bills costing into the hundreds when in reality it should be a quarter of that.”
And that’s where PUSH has found a niche as a unique problem solver to impending tax foreclosures: Keep people within their homes by insulating the homes.
The houses on Prospect Street, on Buffalo’s West Side, are quaint. Each of the colonial-style homes are two stories tall, with green lawns, flagpoles and raised patios. They’re also very old, sometimes well over 100 years — back when it was relatively cheap to heat a home.
But that’s not the case any longer.
On a Wednesday morning in September, I’m meeting with DeJesus outside of a home on Prospect. The home, owned by a local family that I was told had a hard time paying their utility bills, didn’t have any insulation. And that’s not an uncommon story in Buffalo.
“These are old homes — so many of them don’t have the proper insulation they need to keep warm during the winter here, so the costs are way more than what you’d normally expect than from newer homes,” DeJesus says.
According to National Fuel estimates, since 2015, gas prices to heat a home for five months has gone from $500 in 2015 to an estimated $560 this year. But that’s for energy-efficient homes.
In order to make homes energy-efficient — a process that can include an inspection and attic and wall insulation — it can easily range in the thousands of dollars. And for a number of families in Buffalo, that’s just not a viable option.
The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority offers free weatherizing for families who meet income guidelines that are 60 percent below the state’s median income, but there is little outreach from the state to get families to apply and weatherize their homes.
That’s where PUSH comes in. Once a week, members of PUSH go into poor neighborhoods and talk to residents about weatherizing their homes. For families that can afford weatherizing on their own, PUSH gets them set up for the process. For families that can’t afford the initial audit or the insulation, they partner with homeowners to get the free services through the state.
The result is thousands of dollars in savings each year for each home — more than enough to help families who struggle with their tax payments.
“PUSH [has] made a world of difference for people who didn’t even know what was going on with energy issues,” says Lucy Velez, a volunteer with PUSH. “My community doesn’t think about those things, we’re trying to keep our homes and pay our bills.”
Anecdotally, the process is working. Green, the community advocate, points out that families that were formerly on the auction block are now able to stay in their homes and finance their tax bills and city usage fees.
But she recognizes that lowering bills serves only as a band-aid for a much larger problem: a lack of affordable housing in the Buffalo area.
“These are band-aids, and band-aids are really important things. But they don’t address the problem. It’s easy to say something is bad and try and quickly fix it. It’s harder to ask why,” she says. “We’re in this space now, where we can’t just yell about public infrastructure. The middle ground is building infrastructural assets that can be controlled, designed and owned by the community so that we can build long-term neighborhoods.”
Just a few miles east, that’s exactly what’s happening.
The Fruit Belt section of Buffalo has been plagued with a declining population since the ’50s. The area — named for its flowering fruit trees — dropped from 11,000 in the ’70s to just over 2,000 people currently.
The decline in population has also translated to blocks of empty and vacant lots. Until now.
As of May this year, residents of the Fruit Belt neighborhood have successfully petitioned to create a land trust that would ensure people are not being priced out of their neighborhoods.
Residents who buy properties through a land trust split the equity of the home — most of it stays within the trust — which then keeps the price low for the next homebuyer.
Denice Barr, a resident of the Fruit Belt, is one of those residents who were instrumental in advocating for the land trust.
“People just moved into our neighborhoods without any thought about us, who’ve lived there for decades,” she says. “Now, we have the ability to take a stand against people moving in and selling off our community from under us.”
This solution isn’t unique to Buffalo. Community land trusts have been created in cities including Washington D.C., New York City and throughout Florida. But with a city that has seen a tremendous amount of growth in industry and city spending to make Buffalo more attractive, it could be a helpful tool for residents who have felt left behind in the city’s self-proclaimed renaissance.