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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.

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The value of bonds was based on revenue that was supposed to have been generated by the houses, through either selling them or collecting unpaid taxes. But the state made little effort to sell or collect taxes on the properties. Why? Because doing so would reveal the true value of the properties, according to Bartley, and the house of cards would come crumbling down.

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"The reason they didn't do that is that would've shown the lie to the deal, because they would have sold for $0, and it would have indicated that it was worthless," Bartley explained.

When Bartley and Walker made the discovery, they tried to bring it to the attention of state officials through standard channels, but when that failed they launched a direct action campaign. Using a big stencil, they painted an image of then-Gov. George Pataki's face on more than 200 houses across the city. Eliot Spitzer was campaigning for governor at the time, and he took an interest in the issue. When Spitzer took office, his administration unwound the bond, gave the houses back to the city of Buffalo, and created a small housing rehab fund. The houses were turned back into the city's inventory, and when PUSH or one of its partner organizations wants to redevelop one, they ask to have it transferred.

Two years later, PUSH invited hundreds of residents to a neighborhood planning congress to draft a development plan for the largely blighted 25-block area on the West Side that would later become the Green Development Zone (GDZ). The plan went far beyond energy-efficient affordable housing to include the creation of employment pathways and promoting economic stability within the zone.

On the surface, the GDZ still looks similar to other Buffalo neighborhoods: The streets are lined with 100-year-old two- and three-story houses, and in the summer they teem with people. Old ladies sit and talk on first-floor balconies, while kids weave in and out of slow-moving traffic on bicycles. But this small neighborhood is in the midst of a pretty radical transformation.

"Sustainability" in the context of PUSH's agenda means reducing the neighborhood's environmental impact, but also strengthening the local economy and creating green jobs in the building rehabilitation and weatherization industries. PUSH was instrumental in getting the Green Jobs - Green New York (GJGNY) legislation passed, which seeks to create 35,000 jobs while providing green upgrades and retrofits for 1 million homes across the state.

PUSH recently established PUSH Green to implement the GJGNY program in the Buffalo area, functioning as an independent outreach contractor in the region. For the work, PUSH has established what it calls a "Community Jobs Pipeline," a network of contractors who agree to provide job training, pay living wages, and hire local workers from target populations.

In September, PUSH held a ribbon-cutting ceremony for three gut-rehab buildings with a total of 11 affordable housing units, bringing the total number of residential units PUSH completed in the GDZ to 19.

But the organization has much bigger ambitions. In December, PUSH announced plans to build nine new-construction buildings and to renovate seven existing properties, adding a total of 46 more energy-efficient, affordable units to the neighborhood.

"We're very strategic in our development work, so we've taken a small section of the West Side, and we're really trying to concentrate our development," explained PUSH Development Director Britney McClain. "We don't want to contribute to the scattershot development work that is also common in the city of Buffalo."

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