Buffalo’s largest Hispanic organization has big plans for two big vacant houses it has owned for three years in a prominent Lower West Side location.
“We’re ready to do the rehab from top to bottom,” said Eugenio Russi, a board member for Hispanics United of Buffalo.
But the project has run into an unusual sticking point: The organization’s executive director last year signed a contract to sell the houses for a dollar.
So now the organization has sued in State Supreme Court to void that agreement, meaning a judge could decide who will own the houses.
The dispute, however, also reveals an agency on the cusp of a resurgence. Its new affiliation with a Bronx organization appears to have put it on firmer financial footing and made it better able to provide social services and housing initiatives to neighborhood residents and low-income clients.
Still, the man who would take the property for a dollar, Danny Duff, wants the organization to honor the contract.
Duff has dramatically improved his home, but he lives next to the boarded-up houses on Whitney Place. He focuses more on Hispanics United’s record the past three years than the hoped-for renaissance.
“They were going to fix it, going to fix it and going to fix it, but they never had money to do it,” Duff said.
Duff wants to renovate one of the houses and tear down the other.
Hispanics United received the property as a gift three years ago but has not done anything to repair the houses, and that prompted Duff to call city inspectors for housing code violations.
The roof is falling in at the house next to Duff’s yard, and debris falls into his in-ground swimming pool.
That house is “a total disaster” that would cost too much to repair, Duff said. He said it has not been lived in for the 12 years he has lived in his home.
Early last year, Hispanics United was in financial distress.
Lourdes Iglesias, the executive director, said she moved to unload the houses because the organization could not afford to renovate them or pay Housing Court fines. She said she did so with the support of her board.
She found Duff to be the right person to take the houses, given his success at renovating his home and another property he owns on the block. His brick home is assessed at three times the amount he paid for it in 1999.
“Mr. Duff is a great asset to our community,” Iglesias said. “He has taken care of his property and has a beautiful home. I wish all our neighbors were like this man. I was so impressed with him, and he was willing to take the property off our hands.”
She and Duff signed the purchase agreement last March. But several months later, the fortunes of Hispanics United brightened.
In August, it became an affiliate of the Acacia Network, a Bronx organization and the largest Latino nonprofit in the Northeast providing health and social services, housing and economic development programs.
Raul Russi, Acacia’s chief executive officer, grew up in Buffalo after moving to the city at age 11.
He was a Buffalo police officer for 15 years, former superintendent of the Erie County Holding Center and served as chairman of the state Board of Parole.
He was a founder and the first chairman of the Western New York Hispanic and Friends Civic Association and later served as a board member of Hispanics United.
Raul Russi is Eugenio Russi’s brother. Eugenio Russi now provides daily oversight at the organization’s Virginia Street offices, just a block from the property now in dispute.
Under the new structure, new board members joined three holdovers on the Hispanics United board. With Acacia’s backing, they see a re-energized future for the organization, Eugenio Russi said.
That future includes keeping the two houses at Whitney Place and Virginia Street.
“We stabilized the agency,” said Eugenio Russi, who retired last month as a regional director for the state Division of Parole. “We’re getting back to re-establishing our relationships with agencies that supported us in the past.”
And now Hispanics United wants to refurbish the two three-bedroom houses for transitional housing or for other services for domestic violence victims, the elderly or other disadvantaged members of the community.
“For us, it’s about the community,” he said. “We have enough houses that have been torn down.”
“We don’t want this to happen to our beloved Virginia Street,” Eugenio Russi said.
Raul Russi added, “The property still belongs to Hispanics United of Buffalo, and now it has the ability to renovate them and put them back into community use.”
Raul Russi said Iglesias faced funding challenges at the time she was trying to discard the property.
Before Hispanics United became an Acacia affiliate in August, there were “some serious concerns about whether HUB could continue to exist,” Raul Russi said.
After the restructuring and arrival of the new board, “We realized this agreement [with Duff] was in a partial phase,” he said. “There were issues with it.”
The lawsuit by Hispanics United alleges Iglesias signed the purchase agreement with Duff without advice of counsel or a legal review of the document.
The lawsuit also claims:
• An appraisal was not done. The assessed value of the property is $52,000, yet the agreement is for just one dollar, which “is not fair and reasonable.”
• The “purported contract” was not approved by an official vote of the organization’s board, nor did the board pass a resolution approving the sale.
• No board minutes reflect approval of the contract.
• The contract has not been reviewed by State Supreme Court or approved by the state attorney general, as required by state law.
“As a result of the purported contract, HUB’s interest in the property is threatened, and its ability to undertake its planned renovations to the property is impeded,” according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit says the contract was signed by “HUB’s then-executive director.” Iglesias said she is on sick leave but remains the organization’s director.
“I’m not clear as to what is going on, honestly,” she said. “I feel awkward about it. The sad thing is none of the new leadership has reached out to call me.”
“Back last year, one of the things the board decided to do, and I agreed, was to basically sell that property because of the cost that was going to be incurred to fix them,” she said.
She said the previous board unanimously voted to approve the agreement.
The deal Duff signed would not be cheap for him. He agreed to pay the $4,000 in closing costs.
Tearing down one of the houses would cost him about $12,000, and he would have to refurbish the other house.
“Look at it. It’s not worth $52,000,” he said as he looked at the property from his backyard.
Duff said the dispute has discouraged him. He said he just wants to refurbish the house on top of the improvements he has made to homes in the neighborhood.
“Why am I the bad guy here?” he asked.