Upcoming Events

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Billed for...nothing.

I got hit with a water bill a few weeks back--$90 per quarter, sewer maintenance fee. The bill, printed on official letterhead containing the seal of the City of Buffalo, read:


According to the City of Buffalo Tax Department the above listed property was purchased at the October 2008 foreclosure sale.

The flat or metered rate account balance owed prior to the October 2008 sale, has been removed and the mailing information has been updated.

For metered accounts a final meter reading may be needed in order to properly adjust the bill.

Please call Customer Service if there are any questions regarding this account.

The actual water bill was on another sheet of paper. Included was a confusing list of what seemed like 20 different rates, the amount of water usage (which for me was zero), and an estimated water bill. My question was...did I actually have to pay it? The people at the foreclosure sale told me that from day one I'd be liable for anything to do with my house, but it was December 22nd and I had yet to receive any deed stating I was the rightful owner to any property. And how can you be hit with bills if you can't actually claim ownership?

I assumed that there was no way to avoid this fee and that I'd just have to pay it, but I figured I'd call the water authority just to make sure. Well, the woman who answered the phone wasn't positive about the fee, but told me that I would most likely be required to pay it because the city had already reduced my bill since the foreclosure sale (the previous owner owed ~$1500). I politely asked if she could check with someone who could provide a more definitive answer. She put me on hold for about 5 minutes, talking to a superior of some sort. Upon returning, she was flustered and said something to the effect of:

"Oh well, we wouldn't normally do this but....I mean, since you don't officially have the deed yet...well, my manager says we aren't technically allowed to charge you so...your fee will be waived until the next quarter."

It was like they were doing me a huge favor by waiving the fee, when really shouldn't they not have charged me in the first place?? This is one instance where it seems like the water authority gets away with charging people incorrectly. It really makes me irritated because I know that probably
95% of the population would assume that the water authority knows what they're doing, it's a quarterly charge, there's no getting around it, and they would end up giving them the $90! And in my neighborhood, who can afford to dish out $90 for a bill that isn't even legitimate??

It's totally not fair because I can guarantee that most people
a) would have paid unnecessarily
b) would not think/know to call and question the bill
c) would have had to pay regardless because the workers probably decided on a whim to waive the fee, based on my politeness and the fact that it was the holiday season!

I guess I'm slowly but surely learning about home ownership...but if I can't figure this stuff out and am encountering problems, wouldn't you say that there is something fundamentally wrong with the system? At least in my neighborhood it sets a person up for paying fees which they can't afford to pay, causing them to have liens on their property, leading to foreclosures and ever increasing urban blight. Now, that may seem a little overdramatic when just talking water bills, but add up all the fees, utilities costs, taxes, etc etc and you can see how this can negatively impact a neighborhood!

Monday, December 1, 2008

Community is about taking care of one another.

I suppose you've all heard the news of the person getting trampled in the Black Friday rush last week; consumerism triumphed over the would-be helpers in the situation, forcing them away from the poor fellow being crushed by the stampede of post Thanksgiving shoppers. I read this in the newspaper and was sickened. Isn't the holiday about being thankful for what we have and about helping others? How can we ever build a united community if we are trampling over one another, just anxious to get ahead? Just anxious to buy that silly toy or one more pair of pants? After reading the horrifying news in the paper I thought I needed to share an update. One which involves taking care of community members and the joy that results in giving just for giving sake...minus all the consumerism bs.

I visited my house the other day; I checked up on it and added a little christmas cheer (there is now a huge snowman smiling in the window!). I was just about to leave when a guy in his late twenties came up to me. He had heard that I was doing a housing rehab project and wondered if he could help me out for a little extra cash now and then. Well, I think that when you're part of a community, you gotta support each other. So after talking for a minute, we decided he would shovel the sidewalks when it snowed and check on the house while I am away at school in return for some money. This a) gets rid of my worries surrounding upkeep of the house and b) helps my neighbor out, so it is mutually beneficial. This is EXACTLY what we as a society need to be doing more of! Helping neighbors out, talking to each other, developing relationships, etc.

Where I used to live no one spoke to each other...you got home and entered your house, never saying hello to people in the surrounding houses. I felt a real disconnect--it took a move to a more social neighborhood to realize what great relationships communities have to offer! We should go against this habit of non-communication and reach out to our neighbors, get to know the friendly and interesting people living around us! We all have stories to tell and each of us has value within our society. This house and this project was started because I see a need for myself and others in the community to come together and just talk to each other, so hopefully getting my path shoveled by a neighbor is only the beginning...

The second part of my update is about giving. There's that old folk tale about the little red hen. Little Red Hen does all the work around the house and makes some bread. She works for hours and hours with no one helping her, and even though no one helped her get all the ingredients or do all the baking, Little Red Hen still shares the bread with everyone in the end. It's like giving a cup of sugar to your neighbor--not because you expect repayment, not because you can then hold something over their head, but just because. The same lucky day I found help with shoveling the sidewalks, I also got the chance to give a gift...just because.

Oddly enough, I had a poinsettia in my car. Now, I don't just go around carrying poinsettias, but for some reason I had one. I had just finished making arrangements for shoveling my sidewalk when the woman from across the street walked over. I had met her before and we had become good friends over the summer. She was always outside cheering me up when I was sweaty and grumpy after a day working in the community gardens down the street. While telling her about my rehab project and what I planned on doing with the house, I suddenly thought of the poinsettia in my car. What does a college kid need with a poinsettia? I'd probably forget to water it... Anyway, I gave the poinsettia to my neighbor, just because. She was so surprised and happy, and then I realized, you know what? It isn't about the giving...it's about not expecting something in return and giving just because you're neighbors. It's about making friends with the people around you and supporting one another. With both neighbors that day I learned it's about making ties--making relationships so that when you need help, people will be there for you. It may not be enough to rebuild a community yet, but like I said before, it's definitely a start.

Giving thanks...thanks for giving!

It's a little past Thanksgiving, but I just wanted to extend a heartfelt thanks to all who have contributed to the project thus far. Thanks for making this possible. Of course, you are all invited to stop by the house to attend a workshop or potluck and receive a grand tour! Without your contributions I would still be at school next semester, not pursuing something I care so deeply about. So this Thanksgiving I am thankful for all the wonderfully supportive people who have contributed money, time, advice and their superb ideas...you've really made a difference.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

A first look at the house...!

I went home this weekend for the Great Lakes Building ReUse Conference and had my first look at my newly purchased house!

Purchasing a house through a foreclosure auction is kind of crazy--you know which houses are available, but you're essentially bidding on a house that you've never been in before! Taking chances, hoping there's not something seriously wrong with the house. You pay the house in full and then have to wait for the city to process your paperwork before you can get the deed. Supposedly the deed comes within 6-8 weeks of paying, but with these types of things you never know.

It all seems a bit ridiculous to me. The foreclosure auction is in October, so if you purchase a house, you will be working on it in the dead of winter with potentially no heat, no electricity, no running water, etc. You are liable for the property from the date of purchase, yet, you have no deed until months later? The house has to survive the winter when you probably haven't winterized it? Everything about the foreclosure auction seems to set up a new homeowner to fail. Why not make it easier on folks and have the auction in March, speed up the paperwork and provide incentives for people to take on a vacant house?

Anyway, the house looks like it's in great shape. The insurance agent came and took a look around and said the structure is amazingly very sound. Yay!! One less worry on my part. It's great--these old houses last forever. High quality wood, well built...it's lasted a century and will hopefully last plenty years more!

Friday, October 31, 2008

The joys of insurance

Today I discovered the reality of owning a house. I suppose I had some vague idea of the insurance web that I would be entangled in, but three different insurance policies on one house/rehab venture??

1. Home owner's insurance. Makes sense--it would be terrible if the house suddenly burned down and I didn't have it insured. It'd put a definite damper on the project.

2. Liability insurance. You know, for the random passerby who's looking at the newly installed rain catchment/greywater recycling system and isn't paying attention to the fact that the sidewalk has actually come alive and mysteriously decided to attack his/her left foot, latching on so the person smashes face first into the ground, knocking out two front teeth and having the angle of their ankle oddly resemble L'Arc de Triomphe.

3. Liability insurance#2. If you are ever thinking about involving the community(heaven forbid), be sure to insure yourself because when someone hits themselves with a hammer while working on your property, you're at fault. Who knew you could be responsible for other people's mistakes?

So I was on the phone with the insurance company for about an hour, explaining how I need insurance, but with the way the in rem auction and deed transfer works I technically don't get the deed for another month. Yet according to the city of Buffalo, even without the deed I am responsible for the property? Weird. Anyway, after all of this the insurance guy asked me, "You stressed yet?"

To that I simply replied, "it's all a learning experience." Now I know--insurance is a necessary evil. At least I'm warned for the next time I want to purchase/rehab a house.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Defining the "problem"

So we all know that Buffalo gets a bad rap. I tell people at school I'm from Buffalo and the responses I typically get are "Oh, you must like snow..." or "how does it feel to have your sports teams ALMOST win?" and the occasional "that's so close to us here in NYC, you must go home often!"

Well, I happen to love all four seasons of Buffalo weather, I hate when the Sabres and the Bills lose (but they won't this year!), and if you didn't know, Buffalo is 400 miles away on the other side of the state (totally separate from NYC), so no, I do not go home as often as I'd like.

Anyway, all this to say--Buffalo's reputation precedes it in one way or another, and oftentimes the reputation is not a very good one. Unfortunately this negativity seems to affect Buffalonians' opinions, causing a "poor us" mentality which, more often than not, results in pessimism and an action gridlock on many social issues and city plans. We begin to think that solutions are hard to come by and frankly not worth the time it would take in years of bickering. This is especially the case with the current housing crisis.

An estimated 40,000 houses lie vacant in Buffalo. Forty thousand! If an average family of four occupied each of those homes, Buffalo's population would rise 160,000 from under 300,000 to over ~450,000! Clearly this will not happen if there continues to be suburban sprawl and a lack of jobs, so that still leaves us with a considerable housing problem. What should we do with these properties? Should we demolish/deconstruct all of them? Rehab them?

To be sure, it must be a combination of many strategies. To say that rehabbing is the only answer is unrealistic given our decreasing population (who would move into all these homes?), but to say that a good plan is getting rid of all the structures and throwing them into landfills is equally as out of touch with reality. Adopting a middle of the road policy and allowing for both downsizing and revitalizing is the strategy I believe Buffalo must take.

I have chosen housing rehabilitation as my contribution to the solution. A small part of my decision was to see one less house demolished. The old homes in Buffalo are gorgeous if you put a little time and effort into them! I also decided to tackle this project given chats I had with friends, relatives, neighbors this summer. What I often found when talking with them was that people (including me!) just don't know how to maintain their homes. If you have enough money then sure, you can pay someone else to worry about it, but a) not everyone can afford to do so, and b) if everyone did that, no one would take pride in and feel connected to their neighborhoods! This makes up the second component of my project: offering the house as a learning space where workshops are offered on everything from home repairs to basic maintenance to lawn/garden creation. Lastly, my decision to start this project stemmed from my belief that there are answers to the housing crisis that we haven't even dreamed up yet. My thinking is, if I can provide this house as an open slate to try anything on--invite people with new ideas, new technologies, new rehab techniques, variations on traditional methods--then perhaps we can work collaboratively and arrive at a solution that makes sense!

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Step One: Buy a house!

Hello and welcome! In the future this is where I will be posting updates on the progress of my project. The first update I have is really really exciting news--today I purchased a house through the foreclosure auction! The house is a cute little two-family dwelling on the east side of Buffalo. It has been unoccupied for over a year and needs a lot of work, but it definitely has character! The current plan for this house is to use it as a learning center for the community--anything from home repairs to gardening workshops will be hosted there in order to teach about basic home maintenance, food security, and sustainability. I chose the name Buffalo Basics for this blog/project because I think that it is important to stress the need for "going back to the basics." As a society it seems we have lost these things that were once common knowledge, so I believe it is important that we return to the basics of home ownership and food sustainability if we are to envision a better Buffalo community. In my next post I will explain the hows and whys of this project, the impact I see it having, and how you can be involved.

Until then,