Spotlight Buffalo: Heart of the City, Inc.
October 19, 2009 at 12:54 pm WNY MEDIA
By Ryan Nagelhout- Talk About It
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On a single street in Buffalo, two opposite ends of the spectrum sit side by side.On the left is what amounts to a brand new house, an eco-friendly, well-landscaped home ready for occupation with no repairs necessary. On the right, a city-owned vacant lot on which a home used to sit.The difference between the two lots is what Heart of the City Neighborhoods, Inc. is all about. Since 1998 the not-for-profit Community Development Agency has worked on Buffalo’s lower West Side, strategically purchasing vacant properties and renovating them with the help of grants.The homes are gutted and completely refurbished with new plumbing, electric, and landscaping work. Heart of the City attempts to make the residences eco-friendly as well, with rainwater collected for watering plants and brand new insulation. Homes are then sold to eligible first-time homeowners at a greatly discounted rate.The goal for Heart of the City is to not only address the vacancy issues in the West Side, but to stabilize neighborhoods as well.“When you buy a property from us you have to stay in the property for a series of years, for maybe 5-10 years,” said Stephanie J. Simeon, executive director of Heart of the City, Inc. “That stabilizes a neighborhood with one family.”Heart of the City also forms a block club whenever they move to a different street, a “signature” project of theirs that helps to further tie neighborhoods together.“Once we are done with our development we still have vested community members who stick around and still have the same interests,” she said. “They want to finish what we started.”Simeon noted that their investment in a neighborhood often forces others to invest their own time and money to fix their own properties. Having a brand new home on your block is good for property value, but it also may make the paint on your own home seem a bit faded.“No one wants to have the worst house on the street,” she said with a laugh.Heart of the City’s latest project, 263 Hudson, offers a unique look at what they do differently than the City of Buffalo when it comes to the vacancy issues in the city. While the city-owned lot next door lies empty, Heart of the City has a brand new home ready to house a family for the long-term. Heart of the City wasn’t able to purchase the lot next door, but was told the new owner of 263 Hudson can buy the property in the future.Simeon feels a strength of HOTC is their ability to look past cosmetic issues with houses and take risks most purchasers are unwilling to. They’ve pulled three homes off the city’s demolition list, homes that are far from lost causes.“We’re not just looking at (building) code,” Simeon said. “We’re looking at how can this greatly change the quality of life for the other residents on the street by taking this vacant home, gutting it, and putting a new family into it.”Future projects for HOTC include three adjacent properties on Hudson, where they plan to build two townhouses. They’d also like to move off Hudson Street to Whitney Place, where there are six vacancies between Hudson and Virginia to pursue.Their goal is to continue working off the same streets to further stabilize the community. By keeping their efforts centralized, Simeon says it will “show the community that we are a dedicated developer.”2009 has been a big year for the not-for-profit, which has been able to secure a number of grants with their hard-working staff of just three. They plan to add more staff in anticipation of their new projects, but their successes with so little is very impressive.“I’ve been really pleased at the way we’ve been able to expand what we do,” said Jessica Keltz, vice president and Board of Trustees member. “Most of us give the credit to Stephanie.”