Habitat for Humanity Buffalo

Background

 Buffalo, N.Y., was incorporated in 1816, but its true start as a modern city came with the completion of the Erie Canal in 1825. As the canal’s western terminus, also served by several major railroad lines, Buffalo became a hub for trade between the Great Lakes Region, Canada, and the Eastern U.S. Buffalo further thrived as a center for steel production and other manufacturing and as an important grain and livestock market. These industries attracted and employed a great diversity of ethnic groups, and generated the wealth to turn Buffalo into a showcase for fine architecture and city planning.

Buffalo’s fortunes, like those of many other “Rust Belt” cities, declined after World War II, as steel plants closed in the face of cheaper foreign competition, as the opening of the Saint Lawrence Seaway in 1959 ended the Erie Canal’s role as a major trade route, and as the city experienced “white flight” to the suburbs or other places.

Today Buffalo (population approx. 293,000) is ranked as the third poorest city in the nation. One in three families in the city lives below the poverty level. Buffalo also has the third worst vacancy problem in the country, behind only Detroit and New Orleans. The city currently has several thousand abandoned properties that are slated for demolition.

The Affiliate

The housing problems facing low-income families in the city are something that Habitat for Humanity Buffalo has helped to address for the past 25-plus years. To date it has enabled 214 low-income families to become homeowners. This translates to 907 people, of which 594 are/were children, who are now living in simple, decent, safe, efficient houses.

Habitat Buffalo works exclusively on single-family homes doing both new construction and rehabs. The organization’s first projects were rehabs; it has completed 143 rehabs to date.

Typically the affiliate has about 10-12 projects underway at one time. Last year, it completed a record 17 projects. It is now engaged in a capacity-building program to increase the number of projects to at least 20 per year. Habitat Buffalo is currently the largest home builder in the city.

There are about 30 families that are pre-qualified and have worked at least 150 “sweat equity” hours waiting for a house (families must complete 500 total sweat equity hours with the balance done on their own house). Another 60 families are working on their initial hours to get on the list for a house.

Site Selection and Acquisition

All houses rehabbed by the affiliate have been donated to it by individuals (who can get a tax deduction for the appraised value) or by the city. (For many years, a local housing court judge encouraged homeowners with building code violations to donate their neglected properties to Habitat.) Individual houses from neighborhoods throughout the city have been offered to the affiliate.

Before accepting a donation, Habitat’s site selection team sends out a member to examine the house to determine if it is structurally sound and does not have water infiltration problems. The City of Buffalo now also requires an inspection for asbestos. Habitat will accept the house if the use of asbestos is minimal (such as in wrapping for pipes and duct work), but it recently rejected a house with asbestos in its plaster that would have cost $30,000-$40,000 to remediate.

Once the house passes this inspection, the affiliate looks for a family on its list that would like the house, taking them out to view it. If a match is made, the house is accepted.

Process: Focus on Sustainability

All houses are rehabbed to Energy Star standards. They will typically receive new energy-efficient vinyl windows, and vinyl siding will be used if the original shingles and clapboards are in poor condition and cannot be easily retained by replacing some sections. All houses get a new roof. Interiors are almost always stripped down to the studs. Inside, every home gets new heating, plumbing, and electrical systems; insulation and air sealing; wallboard; and a newly built and equipped kitchen and bathroom.

New houses constructed by Habitat Buffalo, described below, are built to meet LEED standards. The houses completed most recently were certified as LEED Gold.

Preservation

While Habitat Buffalo rehabs homes throughout the city, it must meet specific requirements of the Buffalo Preservation Board when working in the Hamlin Park Preservation District.

Hamlin Park was established in the first quarter of the 20th century to appeal to recent European immigrants and first-time homebuyers. Laid out as a picturesque suburb, influenced by Olmsted and the City Beautiful movement, it features homes in Foursquare, Prairie, Bungalow, and Colonial Revival styles. With a shift in population that started in the 1950s, it became a predominantly middle-class African-American neighborhood. In December 1998, Hamblin Park was designated as a local historic district, in part to halt insensitive alterations of houses being rented out to students from nearby Canisius College. It is, by far, the city’s largest such district, with 1,633 properties.

Habitat has been working in Hamlin Park since 2000. It has rehabbed eight houses there and just received two more. Many of the houses in the neighborhood were built as two-family homes, designed to give homeowners the advantage of also owing an income-producing rental unit. Habitat converts these to single-family homes, leaving the unneeded space as an unheated storage area.

Exteriors

On the front facade, Habitat is required to retain original clapboards and shingles (unless they have already been replaced) and use wood windows and trim in the same size and style as the original ones. Replacement elements such as stairs, columns, decking, railings, and driveways must reproduce what was there originally. While there is more leeway on materials used on the other facades, the profile of windows and other features must match the originals. In the preservation district or not, the affiliate will preserve original leaded glass.

David Zablotny, Habitat Buffalo’s executive director, says of these restrictions: “It does add some to the cost, but it’s not an amount that is too overwhelming that would cause us to not want to do those houses.”

Ronald Talboys, who has been Habitat Buffalo’s president from its beginnings and installs the mechanical systems, agrees: “It might cost a little extra and it does take some extra effort, but if you know that going in, I guess that’s okay. It’s not something that breaks the bank or breaks your back.”

But both are concerned that the need to repaint wood exteriors in the future places a burden on low-income Habitat families.

Interiors

Although Habitat ordinarily strips all interiors down to the studs, some original features may be retained in the living and dining rooms. New materials would still be used in other rooms. Talboys notes, “Our mission is to help low-income families into decent affordable houses, so we don’t want to lose that focus, but when it is practical we can’t resist doing some preservation.”

Tall baseboards, and the columns and other woodwork that is typically found in and between the living and dining rooms, may be removed, refinished, and reinstalled. Zablotny recalls: “About a year ago, we got a beautiful house that had beamed ceilings, and built-in glass-front bookcases in the living room and glass-front cabinets in the dining room. We found a way to do everything we needed to do without gutting the house, because it would have been a shame to take out all that beautiful woodwork.”

Responses

Potential owners are told that if they move to Hamlin Park they will not be able to have easy-maintenance vinyl windows and siding, but most don’t mind because they are attracted to the neighborhood.

Talboys recalls the first owner of a Habitat house in Hamlin Park “was enamored! She was delighted! She went down to the library and did research on her house. Some of them really like that they have an old house with character.”

Zablotny adds that “some our volunteers only want to do rehabs and they really take pride in bringing these old houses back.”

New Builds and Community Revitalization

Habitat Buffalo also builds four or five new houses each year, usually in areas of the city where there has been a significant amount of demolition. The City of Buffalo’s planning department regularly sets aside building lots where demolitions have taken place and “sells” them to Habitat Buffalo for $1. Since the late 1980s, the affiliate has completed 4 houses on Adams Street, 18 on nearby Grey Street, and 12 on Johnson Street, as well as individual houses on scattered sites around the city.

These new houses are of a standard design: one-story with front-facing gable and front porch, and with three or four bedrooms. The use of shingles under the roof peak adds visual interest.

Concerned that the houses looked too suburban for their setting, about five years ago City architects requested some minor changes. Talboys explains: “Now we don’t let any pressure-treated lumber show, and we have a wider reveal around the windows which is typical for a city. And we have drip boards along the sides of the house; in the suburbs, there’d be vinyl right down to the foundation. I have to admit, it does look a little quainter. It is a more urban look.”

Ferguson Avenue

Habitat has a long-standing relationship with the Westminster Economic Development Initiative (WEDI). WEDI was formed some 13 years ago by Westminster Church to turn around a single block on Ferguson Avenue, on Buffalo’s west side. At that time the block, occupied entirely by renters, was plagued by crime and other street problems. Since then, Habitat has rehabbed four houses and built five new ones on the block, which is now about 75 percent owner-occupied. The change there has been “remarkable,” Zablotny says.

Broadway-Filmore

In 2006 Habitat Buffalo approached the City of Buffalo’s planning department to ask if land could be specifically set aside for the affiliate for new builds. It was offered land in the northwest quadrant of the Broadway-Filmore section of east Buffalo, a redevelopment area. During 2007-8, Habitat built seven houses in a single block, filling its vacant lots. On another block two streets away, Habitat has recently completed three houses and is planning to build three or four more in 2011.

Partnerships

According to Zablotny: “We try very hard to develop partnerships in the community. We have a lot of partnerships with local churches, schools, and civic organizations that will send out groups of people to work on our houses. We also have partnerships with local vendors. We try to buy our products locally to keep the money in the community when we can.”

He adds, “We have a very good relationship with the City, as you can see by the fact that we can get land from them basically for free, and they’ll turn over houses to us.”

Talboys, who meets with the Preservation Board on Hamlin Park projects, says that interaction also works well: “We know what we’ve got to do now. We know the drill. [To get approvals for] our last two houses, we were in and out in 20 minutes.” A representative of the Preservation Board describes it as a developing relationship that has become more and more positive in recent years.

The 13-year relationship with the Westminster Economic Development Initiative has, of course, been significant for both groups. Another collaboration is just starting. People United for Sustainable Housing (PUSH), which has been working extensively to improve Buffalo’s west side, recently obtained an abandoned house and turned it over to Habitat Buffalo to rehab for a family.

The University of Buffalo School of Architecture has also been a key partner for the past 20 years, thanks to a required course started by a professor there. Each spring, some 40-50 students spend three weeks working on new builds, doing framing and installing windows and siding. The schedule for new builds is timed so that the houses’ foundations will be laid in time for this.

Impact

Because houses are donated individually, Habitat’s rehab work is spread throughout the city. Zablotny says: “Some funders and foundations have criticized us for not having a greater concentration of impact, but by working in many different neighborhoods our impact can be more widespread. Many times, the donated property is the only vacant property on a specific block. Our work can help keep that block from going in the wrong direction by stemming the vacancy tide.”

According to Talboys: “Neighbors and block-club people tell us that they really love it when we come in and clean up a house or two. Typically we’re getting the house that is the worst one on the block. Two of the houses within the preservation area were in such bad shape that I bet you within a year the wrecking ball would have had to come in. Neighbors embrace what we do and they’ll watch over the project for us, because we’re solving a problem for them as well as helping another family. Everybody is very pleased with what they see and it certainly upgrades the neighborhoods that we’re working in.”

The newly built houses are also helping to bring back areas of the city.

And there’s a further benefit for the entire city. Zablotny explains: “Buffalonians, especially people who have lived here for a while, really appreciate that we are rehabbing houses rather than just having them demolished and building new ones. Even if it’s not a historic or preservation-area house, most of the houses that we work on are 60 or 80 years old at least. These are old structures and people like to see them come back. It’s helping to retain the history of Buffalo.”