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Green housing: In Buffalo, it's not just for rich people

Can cities build sustainable housing that's affordable, too? Buffalo, N.Y., did and created a job-training pipeline in the process. Here's what can happen when a neighborhood takes the lead.

By Mark Andrew BoyerYES! Magazine / March 18, 2013

Luis Nieves (right) helps Michael Raleigh (left) secure floorboards on Raleigh's front porch. Raleigh is renovating a house on the East Side of Buffalo, N.Y., that he purchased from the city for $1 through the urban homestead program. PUSH, a grass-roots organization in Buffalo, seeks to provide affordable, environmentally friendly housing and job training.

Mark Boyer

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Massachusetts Avenue Park was not a place you'd want to take your kids. Before, the small neighborhood park in the heart of Buffalo's West Side was little more than vacant land with a small playground and a crumbling basketball court.

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“It was a real mess,” says Terry Richard, a neighborhood resident who was born in Trinidad and Tobago and later moved to Buffalo, N.Y., by way of Brooklyn. “So we figured … why don’t we just take this on as a task to really force the city’s hand to take care of their problem,” she adds, standing next to the park’s new playground with a bright smile.

Buffalo is located where the waters of Lake Erie feed into the swift currents of the Niagara River. It was established as a major grain shipping and storage center in the late 19th century, but as shipping routes changed and heavy industry packed up and left the Great Lakes region, Buffalo's population rapidly declined. In 1950, Buffalo's population was about 580,000, but by the 2010 census it had fallen to about 260,000.

It isn't just the population that's been shrinking though: Employment numbers are down, and like other Rust Belt cities, Buffalo has struggled to support its infrastructure with a shrinking tax base. The rebirth of Massachusetts Avenue Park echoes many other stories taking shape throughout the city. Instead of waiting for the city to make things better, residents like Ms. Richard are taking matters into their own hands.

Richard is a board member for People United for Sustainable Housing (PUSH), a grass-roots organization based in Buffalo that seeks to provide affordable, environmentally friendly housing and job training.

In early June PUSH celebrated the opening of Phase 1 of the small but pleasant new Massachusetts Avenue Park, which resulted from about two years of petitioning City Hall to fund the project. The park is just one piece of PUSH's broader plan to create a Green Development Zone within the West Side—a 25-block area where the group is developing sustainable, affordable housing and creating new career pathways for neighborhood residents.

Like many Buffalo neighborhoods, the West Side is full of vacant properties, and PUSH co-founders Aaron Bartley and Eric Walker wanted to know why. When they launched the organization in 2005, their first order of business was to conduct a survey of Buffalo's West Side, which meant going door-to-door in the community for about six months.

With a bit of digging, they discovered that a sub-agency of the New York State Housing Finance Agency was in control of nearly 1,500 tax-delinquent properties in the city—about 200 of which were on the West Side—that were being left to rot. In 2003, the state of New York's Municipal Bond Bank Agency bought the delinquent tax liens for those homes, which were then bundled and sold as bonds to investment bank Bear Stearns.

But there was one major problem: According to a report published in Artvoice, Buffalo's main alternative weekly, the assessed value of the properties was much higher than they were actually worth. In effect, the state was using vacant houses in Buffalo to speculate on Wall Street.

Meanwhile, nothing was happening with the houses; the state was neither maintaining them nor selling them.

"There just was absolutely no due diligence done as part of the transaction," Mr. Bartley said. "If there had been, they would've seen that bond was fraudulent."

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