One of Buffalo’s most well-known housing organizations is preparing for its most ambitious project yet, with a goal of providing a warm, affordable place to live for dozens of lower-income West Side residents.

But as PUSH Buffalo beautifies a targeted 25-block area by buying up problem properties and making them attractive again, property values are on the rise, which makes pricing longtime residents out of the neighborhood a real risk.

“We’ve built these great houses, almost makes it look like we’re stepping on our own toes,” said Jen Mecozzi, PUSH’s director of community organizing. “Building affordable housing that people can live in and be safe and feel warm and not have to pay crazy bills – now we might be the reason other people can’t do that.”

PUSH’s mission is in its name – People United for Sustainable Housing – and the group is committed to helping people who already live on the West Side get into housing that is energy-efficient and affordable, while empowering people to create the neighborhoods they want, organizers said.

Ultimately, PUSH wants to make sure that people who have been living in the neighborhood can stay there, and the organization is building as affordably and sustainably as it can, said Jenifer Kaminsky, housing director of PUSH’s Buffalo Neighborhood Stabilization Company.

PUSH is hardly alone in its efforts to improve the livability of the West Side for lower-income residents. And as several nonprofit organizations have focused on housing, businesses have invested in the commercial strips, which has made the area a more attractive place to live.

The Buffalo Niagara Association of Realtors last year reported that home values on the West Side had risen dramatically in the last decade.

“There’s nothing wrong with people making money off of real estate transactions, but our first concern is just regular working people in the neighborhood,” said Lonnie Barlow, a PUSH member and community resident.

A large undertaking

As part of its $12.4 million Massachusetts Avenue Community Homes project, a much larger undertaking than anything it has done so far, PUSH is planning to build nine new structures and rehabilitate seven others. The project’s 46 new units will be rented to people who earn between 40 and 60 percent of the area’s median income, which is about $65,300.

The sites are within the organization’s “Green Development Zone,” a 25-block area centered on Massachusetts Avenue and bounded by Niagara Street, West Delavan Avenue, Richmond Avenue and Vermont Street.

The one-, two- and three-bedroom units will rent from about $385 to $525, similar to the rents of PUSH’s 18 existing units. The new project includes one four-bedroom unit, and several units will be built to accommodate people with physical disabilities, including hearing and vision impairment.

PUSH has been buying up properties, such as 257 Massachusetts Ave., an imposing three-story structure with blond masonry, bay windows covered with boards, and concrete steps, which it purchased for $6,200 last year. In other cases, PUSH has reached development agreements with lot owners, such as the city.

The 26 parcels – some adjacent lots will be the site of a single new structure – were selected with community input. The neighborhood was canvassed, and residents were asked which properties they would like to see improved.

Part of the reason the scale of the project is so large is to accommodate as many people as possible, Mecozzi said, noting the growing interest in the neighborhood, which is causing property values to rise.

The project will be funded partly by the state’s Homes and Community Renewal agency, partly from bank loans, and PUSH is hoping to get some money from the city. PUSH will apply for state funding in January and hopes to get started on the work in the fall. Before all of the grant applications can be made, the project’s approvals from the city must be in place.

PUSH also purchased the long-shuttered Club Utica at the so-called “five points” intersection of Brayton, Rhode Island and West Utica streets.

Resident surveys showed a strong desire for retail businesses at the former country-western bar, so PUSH is planning a fresh-food market, stocked by the Massachusetts Avenue Project, which promotes urban farming, and a storefront for a new or expanding business. The rear of the first floor will be a community meeting space and property management offices, and the second floor will house apartments.

Demand for the apartment units is high, Kaminsky said. In the first month that PUSH started to market 11 new units this fall, more than 100 applications came in, and people continue to inquire at PUSH headquarters on Grant Street.

Dramatic changes

The changes in the last five years in the Grant-Lafayette area – located in PUSH’s Green Zone – have been evident, from the rise in property values to the addition of businesses to those that have been there for decades.

Jeanenne Petri, who owns Westside Stories, a used book and record store on Grant Street, with her husband, Joe, looks no further than the prevalence of Christmas lights in the storefronts this year, compared with last year.

“Since we moved here, the last four years have been dramatic,” Petri said.

The couple moved from New York City and found the West Side to be an affordable place to start a business and raise their children.

“It felt like Brooklyn, a little,” she said.

They live on nearby Greenwood Place, where eight houses that were abandoned or rentals when they moved in are now owner-occupied.

One home on Greenwood Place sold for $39,000 in August 2009, and it sold again in September for $85,000, or $10,000 above the asking price, with four competing offers, said Tim Riordan, an agent with Keller Williams Realty.

Riordan led the Petris to Greenwood Place, where he has sold about a half-dozen other houses.

“It really stood out as an unrecognized jewel,” he said, adding that the houses are in good shape, cheap and aren’t too large to heat or maintain.

As property values rise, rents are rising with them, Riordan said.

At the city auction in October, two of the highest-priced properties sold on the West Side: a house on Greenwood Place for $52,000 and one on Connecticut Street for $70,000.

“A lot of people are buying now because it’s a good area to buy in,” said Niagara Council Member David A. Rivera, who said that as people get priced out of the Richmond area, investment is heading west, toward the Niagara River.

“I think it’s because of a lot of the work that organizations are doing on the West Side. It just didn’t happen out of the clear blue,” he said.

In addition to PUSH, Heart of the City Neighborhoods, Jericho Road Ministries, and Westside Ministries are some of the active organizations in the area.

Delores Powell, who lives on Massachusetts Avenue in a new home revealed on “Extreme Home Makeover” in 2009, credited her block’s transformation to PUSH’s slow and steady progress, but also to the reality show experience, which also improved properties around her own.

“There was a lot of violence, and all of that has changed,” Powell said, noting that the corner of Massachusetts and Normal avenues was particularly dangerous.

The city demolished problem properties around her in 2009, which drove away drug users and other criminals, Powell said.

PUSH encouraged people to take pride in their neighborhood and also gave them a voice, she said.

The neighborhood remains a work in progress. PUSH’s surveys found that residents desire more health care providers, and Mecozzi said differences between classes – the neighborhood is a destination for many immigrant communities – has prevented certain groups from patronizing certain stores.

“Our goal is to get people to stay in the same lane and hang out together,” she said.

At a Planning Board meeting in November, three of PUSH’s neighbors spoke in favor of the project, though real estate broker David Weitzel said that, while he liked what PUSH is doing, there needs to be more opportunities for homeownership.

The concern that the neighborhood’s success is drawing new interest and causing property values to rise is a good problem to have, but one that must be addressed, said Henry Louis Taylor Jr., director of the Center for Urban Studies and a School of Architecture and Planning professor at the University at Buffalo. “We’ve been waiting for a long time for this problem to reach the shores of Buffalo,” Taylor said.

As a way to keep neighborhoods affordable, Taylor suggested establishing land banks, which PUSH has done to address rising property values, or levying property taxes based on income.

“We have to develop mechanisms that allow us to transform neighborhoods so that they’re authentically mixed-income neighborhoods, that will prevent people from being pushed out,” he said. “That’s important because the way we make Buffalo a great city is by creating great neighborhoods in every location, in every corner of this community.”

Mixed-income communities are stronger than homogenous ones, because they foster lower crime rates and better schools, he said.

“The challenge of PUSH is to create a community that will not push people out,” he said.