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Project Green: Dealing with Rochester’s wasted housing stock

October 5, 2010
By Jay Rowe

A vacant house on Rochester's West Side

I found a letter from the city of Rochester in my mail the other day, one that I’ve gotten before. The city is having another auction of foreclosed real estate, and they’re looking for bidders. A little background: Rochester has a problem. It’s the same problem so many other “Rust Belt” cities have. It’s population peaked decades ago. And while I could go in to the problems of “brain drain”, urban flight, or whatever you’d like to call it, it’s left a mark on the city that will take years and millions of dollars to fix. Until then, they’re leaving it to the investors.

Fast-forward 10 years. You’re sitting in a park, surrounded by green space. In the distance is a row of clean, single-family homes, each sitting on a double lot. Kids are playing among rows of flowers, as a man peddles his fresh vegetables from a nearby cart. Welcome to North Clinton and Clifford Ave, circa 2020. If this sounds far-fetched, it’s because it is. It’s a bold initiative called Project Green, and it’s coming to a neighborhood near you. From the city’s website:

Over the next 20 years, more than three dozen city blocks will be converted into a “green infrastructure” of open space that can be used for such purposes as community gardens, urban farms, parks and renewable-energy generating facilities. These green spaces will be connected by a network of pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly “green corridors” that will further enhance Rochester’s exceptional quality of life. Other elements of Project Green include the installation of roof-top gardens, historic preservation, focused investment and strategic development of the city’s downtown and waterways.

To someone who lives in a part of the city without that kind of vacancy problem, it sounds like a great plan, but to those who live in a targeted area, it’s a mixed blessing. Years ago, when Rochester was divided up by immigrant populations, large groups would settle together. There were the Italians, Germans, and so forth. They built homes here, raised families, and strong communities formed. Then WWII ended, and returning soldiers decided to build new homes out in the suburbs. Slowly these urban ethnic communities fell apart, though a few families remain. They still call these neighborhoods home, where their parents or grandparents first settled. Now these homes might be in danger.

Still, something needs to happen. Rochester’s housing stock could support over 100,000 more residents than we currently have. Many homes sit empty. Many more are targets for drug dealers, arsonists and squatters. Drive down Central Park, Joseph Ave or Otis St and you’ll notice mostly vacant lots or houses covered in plywood. Drugs and vandalism aren’t the only problems. A recent Democrat and Chronicle article exposed the unseen problem of years of neglect on a home’s plumbing system, where millions of gallons of fresh water are lost to the basements of so many vacated homes.

This is where the investors come in. Once every year or so the city has a property auction, where it unloads real estate to the highest bidder. Many of the homes go for the minimum bid of $400. In addition, the new owner is given several months to improve the property tax free. There’s a bit more involved: you have to have $10,000 available in the bank for costs, and if you had property in the past and haven’t paid your taxes or made improvements, you’re outta luck. The city has been using this system for years with mixed results. Some properties are rehabbed. Others are minimally fixed up, rented, while maintenance is not performed. With some properties, the process repeats until it is uninhabitable. Landlords make some easy cash while the tenants suffer, and the city is ultimately left with another problem. I should note: this is not the normal outcome. Many landlords offer quality housing with no problems for the city or tenants. As is the case with anything in this world, a few bad apples spoil the whole bunch.

This Northwest Rochester home offers 3 bedrooms, a spacious kitchen, and plenty of mold on the walls.

There are alternatives.  Look at Buffalo.  With over a quarter of it’s housing stock vacant, they city is in a tough spot.  As homes deteriorate, local government is left with few options, as demolition costs often range between $10,000-20,000.  However, where government falls short, citizens step in.  Example: the housing co-op.  Not a new concept by any means, but the idea is spreading like wildfire throughout the Buffalo area.  The New York Times has given it some national exposure with it’s recent article about the Freegan movement.  Though freegans and housing co-ops are not one in the same, their methods and end goals share a lot in common, namely the reuse of disposable commodities.

I tried contacting a local housing co-op for some insight.  The first one that came to mind was Ant Hill over on Plymouth Ave.  Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to get much insight out of them, but I did get an invite to their Thursday potluck.  Then I found Green Phoenix, based in the South Wedge. Again, very friendly people, but busy. If anyone would like to share some insight into the world of housing co-ops, please comment or contact me. I’d love to explore this topic further.

Looking at the big picture, we cannot save thousands of derelict homes using the co-op formula. Similarly, we can’t reinvigorate these neighborhoods with hundreds of first time homebuyers looking for a bargain. I definitely don’t recommend the current system of auctioning and hoping for the best with all of the homes in question. Realistically, most of the worst will be knocked down. Doesn’t sound very green, does it? But wait, what if you could level these homes in an environmentally friendly way?

In Rochester’s case, the accepted method has been (for the most part) to demolish, sort out the most valuable stuff (usually metals) and landfill the rest. In Buffalo, deconstruction is the new way to go. Buffalo ReUse is setting the standard for green demolition. Deconstruction, as the industry calls it, is the systematic disassembly of a building into its components. This method facilitates reuse and recycling, rather than a mangle of debris that must be brought to the landfill. Buffalo ReUse has mastered this, tying in community programs along with a retail venue to help distribute the materials. So why does Buffalo have this, and not Rochester? Demolition companies still reign locally, and none have taken on the challenge of deconstructing a building. The reality is that Buffalo ReUse and similar companies are non-profit, perhaps offering more opportunities for grants and other funding for green ventures, while for-profit companies are inherently less risky, sticking to tried and true methods. Maybe we need someone or something (a private backer or government entity) to come forward with funding for a venture like this.

Project Green, at the most basic level, can and should live up to it’s name. By following the “reduce, reuse, recycle” credo, the city can reuse and recycle the current housing stock, while reducing the future footprint of the target area. Sure, there will be protest and controversy, but this may be the most intelligent method of dealing with Rochester’s wasted housing stock. Anyone have a better idea?

For more information:
The new urban pioneers - BuffaloNews.com
Homeowners worried about City’s future Green Project - WHEC.com
City of Rochester’s Project Green website


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