Buyers purchase vacant properties and restore them to usable form
In a three-bedroom home in the Eastwood neighborhood of Syracuse, Alexandra Adames’ 3- and 5-year-old daughters have space to play, run and throw themselves on the ground without worries of bothering any neighbors.
“I’m really thankful because having this house means a lot to me because of my kids,” Adames said. “They love it. They feel comfortable.”
Since moving to Syracuse from the Dominican Republic nine years ago, Adames, a single mother of three on an income of $23,000 a year, has rented apartments that never really felt like her own.
But now, Adames feels more at home than ever before. A year ago, she became a first-time homeowner when she purchased and moved into a newly renovated house on Hillsdale Avenue, partly due to a partnership between the Greater Syracuse Land Bank and Home HeadQuarters, a nonprofit whose primary mission is to renovate and sell homes to low- and moderate-income owner-occupants.
Home HeadQuarters acquired the property from the Land Bank for $2,500, next to nothing in a neighborhood where the median sales price is about $95,000. Adames paid $90,000 for the home after renovations were completed, according to online listings, aided by a $3,000 stipend from Home HeadQuarters.
The Greater Syracuse Land Bank sells homes at significantly lower prices to qualified buyers who can return them to productive use. In a city where out of a population of more than 144,000, only 21,306 people own homes, the Land Bank’s prices make the path to homeownership more accessible to some who would otherwise be left out of the market.
Unlike Adames, most buyers purchase properties directly from the Land Bank, which acquires the houses after the city forecloses on owners for failure to pay property taxes. New owners generally take it on themselves to make the necessary repairs to restore properties to habitability. Owners agree to a timeline to get the work done, and can lose the property if they fail to keep on schedule.
But often, the Land Bank demolishes properties that are far beyond hope for reasonable repair, a practice that has attracted criticism, especially from advocates of the South, Southwest and Near West sides like Rich Puchalski of the nonprofit Syracuse United Neighbors.
While the demolitions take out homes that are unsafe and that some may see as eyesores, Puchalski and others say there have been too many demolitions and not enough renovations in the areas that need them the most.
“We’ve been critical of the fact that when we counted up the numbers and looked at the houses, we’ve found very few houses have been renovated and sold to owners in our target area,” Puchalski said. “Most of them took place in better neighborhoods — the Valley and Strathmore, for example.”
At a Common Council meeting a few months ago, Syracuse United Neighbors accused the Land Bank of redlining the most underprivileged parts of the city.
“We want to see the resources put into renovating these houses and turning our neighborhoods around,” Puchalski said.
The 5-year-old Land Bank recently applied for funding from the New York State Attorney General’s Office to renovate 10 homes in neighborhoods with the highest concentrations of abandoned and tax-delinquent properties.
The Greater Syracuse Land Bank was created in 2012 to combat Syracuse’s vacant and underutilized property problem. The Land Bank acquires most of its homes through Syracuse’s foreclosure process, a method where the city takes the home of a tax-delinquent owner in order to satisfy the unpaid back taxes. As of Jan. 17, the Land Bank had acquired 1,264 properties.
As the housing stock in Syracuse becomes older — 94.4 percent of the housing stock in Syracuse was built before 1990, according to cnyfairhousing.org — more residents have trouble keeping up with the costs related to repairs and the upkeep of an aging home. In a city where 34.8 percent of residents live below the poverty line, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, absent and unable homeowners have left properties abandoned, vacant and tax-delinquent. This contributes to the extensive inventory the Land Bank has today.
Katelyn Wright, executive director of the Land Bank, says another problem is there is no incentive for landlords and homeowners to invest in property maintenance since the low property value of an older house makes it unlikely the owner will receive that money back once the house is sold.
Kerry Quaglia, the executive director at Home HeadQuarters, has dealt with the high rehabilitation costs associated with dilapidated homes. He points out that the majority of the properties the Land Bank sells are sold as is, and many are in a state of extreme disrepair. Though the listing prices are low, the properties will eat up a lot of funds in renovations.
“That’s a common problem here in Syracuse,” Quaglia said. “Because property values are pretty low, but rehab costs are pretty high, we might buy a property from the Land Bank for $10,000 and need to put $70,000 or $80,000 into it to get it fully up to code and then it may only be worth $50,000 or $60,000 after rehab.”
The Syracuse Land Bank is one of the most active in the state, according to a recent report from the Office of the Attorney General titled Revitalizing NY State. As of Jan. 17, the Land Bank had sold 402 properties, many of these to first-time homeowners.
Adames, who pays about $600 a month for her mortgage, says what she pays now is comparable to what she used to pay in rent in a worse neighborhood than where she lives now.
“When you’re renting an apartment, it’s like you’re giving your money away and you’re always going to be renting, but if you have a house at least you know whatever money you’re paying is for your own house and one day it’s going to be your completely paid house,” Adames said.
Ebony Selmon, who also purchased a Land Bank property through Home HeadQuarters, says she’s proud to have something she calls her own.
“I feel like I’m paying into an investment for me, an investment for my future,” Selmon said. “I don’t need permission to paint the ceiling black if I want to and it gives me a sense of pride because this belongs to me.”
Selmon grew up in the Strathmore neighborhood and always dreamed of owning a home there, but didn’t know if she could afford the typical price of a home in one of the city’s more affluent neighborhoods. Selmon and her husband consider themselves a middle-class family, with their income falling into the $40,000-$50,000 income bracket. According to city-data.com, the average price of a home in Strathmore is about $140,000.
“In the back of mind, I was like, ‘We’re never going to be able to afford a house up there,’ but it’s nice to dream,” Selmon said.
But after discovering a Land Bank house, Selmon and her husband were eventually able to close on a property in May 2015, becoming the first-time homeowners of a fully renovated home on Glenwood Avenue for $89,000, a price significantly lower than other listing prices in Strathmore. She and her husband pay $515 a month for their base mortgage, a price she says is cheaper than renting a “nice” two-bedroom apartment.
While Adames and Selmon were able to have their homes renovated through Home HeadQuarters, some buyers purchase directly from the Land Bank, either hiring outside contractors, or completing the renovations themselves.
Margarita Rodriguez, another first-time homeowner, bought her Near West Side home on Fabius Street directly from the Land Bank for $12,000. It was originally on the market by the owner for over $40,000, a price that she could not afford and thought was way too high.
Rodriguez and her husband are both disabled and live on a fixed income made up of their monthly Social Security payments. She always dreamed of owning a home and was searching for one that fell within her price range.
The Land Bank sold the Fabius property with the condition that she complete the few necessary repairs within a year. Most of the repairs were completed by her husband, lowering their costs.
Now Rodriguez owns the fixed-up house and all she pays are the property taxes and homeowner’s insurance.
Rodriguez has been living in the home for a year and a half now and loves it because the design reminds her of Puerto Rico, her home country.
“Every person’s dream is to have a home that is their own, and I guess you can say I have completed my dream and thanks to God I am here,” Rodriguez said in an interview conducted in Spanish. “The house is humble and small, but for us two it’s enough.”
One thing almost prevented Rodriguez from purchasing the home.
There was an abandoned, vacant house next door that was causing the neighborhood problems. Not only was the house physically unsafe because it was falling apart, but it also was being used as a hangout spot. Vacant houses tend to attract unsolicited activity like trash dumping, drug dealing, or vandalism. Fortunately for Rodriguez, the house was ordered to be demolished, meaning it would no longer cause problems for the property that Rodriguez eventually purchased.
As of Jan. 17, the Greater Syracuse Land Bank had completed 169 demolitions. Some houses have been vacant so long that they are too far damaged, such as being waterlogged, and cannot be saved. When such homes are demolished, the Land Bank tries to sell the lot to homeowners next door.
For example, the recent demolition of a house left an open lot next to Maria Acevedo’s house on Elliot Street on the Near West Side. She was able to purchase the lot from the Land Bank for $151. The lot will allow Acevedo to add something extra to her home, such as a tent or a kiddie pool for her granddaughters, she said in an interview conducted in Spanish.
Bob Dougherty, a former common councilor who supported the creation of the Land Bank and who is now a member of its advisory board, says the Land Bank must make strategic decisions.
“The Land Bank had to be smart, particularly in the beginning, about where they were going to try to get their foot in the door. So if they were just going to be concentrating on the South and West sides of the city, I’m not sure they would be selling many properties, particularly to owner-occupants,” Dougherty said.
Dougherty says the South and West sides have suffered not so much because of the Land Bank directly, but more so because of the market. There isn’t as much interest from owner occupants to live in those neighborhoods.
“It’s particularly hard to market something, especially to an owner-occupant, because people look up and down the street and think, ‘Why would I want to live here?’ and ‘Why would I want to spend money to live on this street?’ unfortunately,” Dougherty said.
The South and Southwest sides carry the majority of the vacant and dilapidated properties in the Land Bank’s inventory list.
Dougherty says he would like to see the Land Bank tackle more foreclosed properties in many neighborhoods, doing the renovations itself or through organizations like Home HeadQuarters and turning over occupant-ready properties instead of dilapidated homes where buyers take on the work themselves, on deadline.
But the lack of funding is an issue. The Land Bank applies for grants from the state and has successfully solicited $1.5 million from the Common Council each year.
However, the Land Bank does not have a secure stream of revenue. It must reapply for the funding it gets every cycle, an issue that Wright says limits the work the Land Bank can do.
“I would say if we had more financial resources we would probably be doing a lot more renovations before we sell because we’re only attracting a certain type of buyer that’s willing to take on the renovations. They’ve got to have the right skill set,” Wright said.
“We could appeal to a much broader range of buyers if we had some fixer-uppers and some move-in ready stuff,” she added.
Though the Land Bank faces criticisms, most agree the creation of the Land Bank was a step in the right direction. Puchalski says the Land Bank could benefit from partnering with other organizations besides Home HeadQuarters that will help the Land Bank tackle the issue of vacant properties faster and more aggressively.
But while the Land Bank strategizes ways to ensure greater success, first-time homeowners are grateful to have a place they can call their own.
For Rodriguez, the Land Bank has already done lots of good.
“It is helpful because there are a lot of people out there that don’t have a high enough income to buy a home but the Land Bank selling houses cheap — for people to renovate it — is a good idea because the dreams of many people come true,” Rodriguez said.
— Article by Jasmine Gomez, The Stand Staff reporter