Oversupply of housing noted as ‘key problem’ in master plan
By Denise Jewell
NIAGARA FALLS — Gloria Sylvester watched as a fire swept through a vacant two-story house across from her home on Niagara Avenue earlier this month.
The flames whipped at a house nearby where residents had to be evacuated. It was the second fire in the building this summer.
“It’s been empty for years,” said Sylvester, as she watched firefighters from her front porch. “Somebody moved in once and moved out the same day.”
Vacant houses are plaguing Niagara Falls neighborhoods.
In large swaths of the Falls —especially streets in the center of the city and near industrial or commercial areas — homes left empty as the city’s population and economy have declined are burdening the city’s resources and deteriorating neighborhoods.
Houses in Niagara Falls are, in general, in rougher shape than other areas of the state.
The statistics are stark, according to the U.S. Census.
n The percentage of vacant housing units in Niagara Falls is higher than the rest of the country. In some depressed areas of the city in the South End or near Highland Avenue, more than a quarter of the homes are vacant.
n Although Niagara Falls housing prices are much lower than other areas of the state, a lower percentage of Niagara Falls residents own the homes they live in compared to the entire state.
n 95 percent of the houses in Niagara Falls were built before 1980, compared to 85 percent statewide and 67 percent across the nation. Homes built before 1980 are more likely to have lead-based paint or other structural problems that need expensive repairs.
n While still a slim number, a higher percentage of people in the city live without complete kitchen facilities or telephone service than in either New York state or the United States.
“It’s a symptomatic problem, because housing problems result from other problems,” said John Drake, executive director of Center City Neighborhood Development Corp., which runs the city’s largest housing rehabilitation program. “It reflects the decline of Niagara Falls and the incomes in Niagara Falls. If we had a growing population and a healthy economy, we’d have a very small housing problem.”
The city’s own master plan cites the city’s oversupply of housing as a key problem in Niagara Falls. “Population decline, suburban flight and a decrease in family size,” the 2004 report states, have all contributed to a city where 13 percent of the 27,837 housing units are vacant.
The master plan — written by city planners and stakeholders as a map to revitalizing the city — also states that the Falls has “no incentive for the repair and upgrading of rental units and many homes are abandoned.”
The cost of maintaining those vacant homes often falls on the city, which has paid $1.37 million this year to demolish 50 vacant buildings and $280,671 on teams to clean up abandoned properties.
Mayor Vince Anello and the City Council also approved borrowing an additional $200,000 to demolish vacant structures in the city in emergencies. They hope that amount will get them through the end of the year.
On Niagara Avenue, where fire ripped through a vacant house twice this summer, the city finally had to pay $35,000 to tear down the burnt structure in an emergency demolition.
Next month, dozens of properties that have fallen behind in taxes will be auctioned off by the city.
A domino effect
Vacant homes strain neighborhoods where residents are struggling to maintain their homes and retain housing values.
Linda Clark knows that struggle.
Clark’s two-story Cleveland Avenue house has been in her family for 40 years. Her front lawn is adorned with flags and ceramic leprechauns. She mows her lawn and has covered her large porch windows with shear plastic to make it more energy efficient. Clark has also tapped into a grant program run by Center City Neighborhood Development to upgrade the roof, siding and electrical work in her home.
But she worries about the impact of vacant houses and rental units on her neighborhood, where the majority of homeowners still maintain their properties.
A few blocks west, the boarded up windows of dilapidated houses have become more frequent. The city tore down an asbestos-laded home on her block this summer.
“I like taking care of my property,” Clark said. “I can’t stand it when you see these houses.”
The effects of vacant homes reaches far beyond the cost to demolish the structures.
A citywide housing conditions survey completed in 2004 found large sections of the city near Highland Avenue, the South End and center city where more than 75 percent of the housing is substandard.
“Vacant, abandoned and boarded up houses have a detrimental effect on a neighborhood in several ways. It decreases the value of people’s assets, their houses. It makes it harder for them to sell if they want to move. It gives them less incentives to fix it up because they know the value of their housing is dropping,” Drake said. “It gives them less value as a rental property. It’s harder to rent, harder to get good tenants. So in general, it just leads to further and further decline.”
A financial consultant, Ed Markus of Aramark Consulting, told the Niagara Falls Water Board earlier this month that a higher-than-expected drop in residential water consumption this year was due to an increase in the number of boarded-up homes where water had been shut off.
Some of those houses, Markus said, are held by speculators who expect property values in the Falls to rise.
“People are buying up houses as investments, basically boarding them up for a few years anticipating the value going up,” Markus said.
Jobs at root of problem
If there is going to be a resurgence in Niagara Falls housing, advocates say, it will take a boon in the city’s economy to spur the type of new housing that would attract new residents and grow the city’s residential tax base.
Housing advocates like Drake believe that housing has languished for years as jobs have dried up and residents have moved away.
“What you’re treating is a problem that is actually a symptom of economic decline,” Drake said.
The question, then, is whether the city needs new jobs to attract residents or new housing to cater to workers.
“It’s the chicken or the egg, but in this city, I know the answer. The answer is jobs,” Niagara Falls Neighborhood Housing Services Executive Director Larry Krizan said. “If you don’t provide economic development in the form of jobs and attractive nightlife and shopping opportunities, nobody wants to live here. Jobs come first.”
More than three years after it opened, the Seneca Niagara Casino remains a glittering hope that at least some of the 1,400 new employees on the site will want to live in Niagara Falls.
About a mile away, Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center presents another potential supplier of new Niagara Falls residents.
Robert Antonucci, project administrator for the city’s Department of Community Development, said city officials are working to facilitate new housing construction in areas near the Seneca Niagara Casino.
“Is the market here right now for new housing?” Antonucci said. “That hasn’t been answered.”
For two years, the city has been pursuing private developers to build new market-rate housing in the center of the city to serve an increasing number of hospital and casino employees who may want to live near work.
While details are scarce, the plan could entail tearing down rows of houses near Niagara Street and the casino to produce a shovel-ready location for new townhouses or other housing. Mayor Vince Anello has said he has been negotiating with two developers to build on the site.
Krizan believes the project could bridge a disconnect between the types of urban houses the city has and the types homes people are seeking.
“Frankly, Niagara Falls doesn’t need housing, because we have a 13 percent vacancy,” Krizan said. “But we need new middle class housing, because we don’t have that kind of housing to offer. You know, Cayuga Island and DeVeaux don’t have high vacancy rates. Not anymore.”
Contact Denise Jewell
at 282-2311, ext. 2245.