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Niagara Falls has long been a statewide leader – but in all the wrong categories.

The city has the highest rate of unemployment in the state. It leads New York in population loss over the last five decades. And more than one-fifth of its housing stock sits vacant and crumbling.

Complicated problems, for sure.

But a new effort is targeting them all.

Called the Isaiah 61 Project, the program is run by a local church leader who buys the city’s vacant homes cheaply, trains the unemployed to fix them up and then sells the homes to local families who are poor.

“It simultaneously addresses three of our most fundamental problems,” Mayor Paul A. Dyster said. “It’s training the workforce for jobs that are going to be available in the community, now and in the future, and in the process taking derelict properties and turning them into productive assets in the city.”

The program, kind of a Habitat for Humanity with a twist, could save the city’s crumbling neighborhoods from falling further into decay.

It also offers the poorest residents of the community a chance to get back to work and, for some, finally own their own home.

“This is a perfect approach,” said Community Development Director Seth A. Piccirillo. “This costs the city nothing, and it even generates a little revenue. It helps young people learn the trades in the process.”

That last point is particularly applicable to Niagara Falls, where two-thirds of city residents receive some form of government assistance.

A few dozen of those residents are already enrolled in the job-training program, which is run through the Niagara-Orleans Board of Cooperative Educational Services.

The unemployed, underemployed and low-income city residents – some recently released from prison – will receive more than 400 hours of education, with classroom instruction and on-the-job training for electrical work, flooring, window installation, framing, plumbing and masonry.

Work began recently on the program’s first home on Highland Avenue, where a dilapidated, city-owned house has dragged down neighboring property values for years.

“There are literally hundreds, if not more, of those buildings across Niagara Falls, and we can’t demolish them all,” Dyster said. “You can’t demolish your way to future success in a city. At some point, we need to start turning around dilapidated housing in the city and put it back to productive use.”

That’s where Jim Haid comes in. He is coordinator of Isaiah 61, a church-led coalition that includes Destination Life Fellowship Church and First Assembly Church.

Haid, who founded the nonprofit group, has arranged to buy the city’s vacant properties for a few hundred dollars each.

“He came to me and said, ‘Right now, where is the epicenter of trouble in the City of Niagara Falls, where’s the place that generates the most problems, whether it’s for law enforcement or community development or the block clubs?” Dyster recalled. “‘Because that’s where we want to go. We want to go right at the point of your greatest need and your greatest distress.’ ”

For Haid, who has a background in charitable work, it’s all about matching up the city’s most pressing problems with solutions.

“Most people don’t want to be unemployed, but they can’t survive on a minimum-wage job,” he said. “These guys will be making $12 to $15 per hour. That’s more than some of these guys have made in their whole life.”

The program gives students tangible experience they can take to a construction company when they apply for work.

It also gives people like Darren Christian a second chance.

In October, Christian was on unemployment. Now he’s trying to work his way into a local plumbers union with his new construction skills.

“I like the fact that I am learning something that can benefit me in the long run,” Christian said. “Having a trade and a piece of paper saying I’m a skilled trader, it’s going to benefit me.”

Christian and five friends were gutting and rebuilding a dilapidated home on Whitney Avenue on a recent morning.

The men could see their breath in the early morning chill, but they hammered on.

“It’s been long and tough, but it’s been worth it,” said Jason Seaberry, who had a number of retail jobs before joining the program. “You can always lose a job, but the one thing you can’t lose is a skill.”

It’s not just about getting a job, though. A few of the residents have really taken to the work.

“I like the smell of fresh-cut wood,” Christian said. “Just seeing the way stuff should be constructed, I like seeing that. Now I go home to my house and say, ‘that’s built like this, that could be a different way.’ ”

Haid has paired up BOCES instructors with the unemployed city residents for a daily construction shift that starts early each morning.

“They’re trying to turn their lives around,” said BOCES instructor Dennis Luzak. “Ninety-five percent of them said, ‘I’ve got kids now, it’s a lot more than just me.’ ”

The program has received support from the John R. Oishei Foundation, Home Depot, First Niagara Bank, the University at Buffalo and other business groups.

It is funded through donations, Haid said, and can always use supplies and storage space.

After the homes are refurbished, Isaiah 61 leaders sell the properties for the cost of construction plus 10 percent. Then they reinvest those funds into construction of the next home.

The nonprofit group works with potential home buyers on budgeting and saving for a down payment, and follows up with the homeowners after they purchase the house.

Leaders have already received several inquiries for the homes, including one from Christian, who is working on the Highland house.

“If you rent the house, not own the house, you don’t care what happens to it,” Luzak said. “If you own the house, you have some pride about it, you respect it more.”

City leaders were almost incredulous when Haid proposed the idea earlier this year – and got it up and running within weeks.

“They’re like an angel investor or something to us, because their goals align with our goals, they’re not in it for making money, and they can take on and do projects that can’t be carried by the market,” Dyster said.

Isaiah 61 is named for the Bible verse that calls upon the people to, with God’s help, “raise up the former desolations and ... repair the waste cities, the desolations of many generations.”

The program couldn’t come at a better time for Niagara Falls.

The city plans on knocking down 50 houses this year, but thousands more remain.

And with the city in a financial crisis, city leaders say they simply don’t have the funds to make a major dent.

Recent progress in the downtown tourism district also depends on the viability of the neighborhoods, Dyster said.

“While we’re working to create the economic engine that’s going to help repopulate the city, you have to prevent the deterioration of the neighborhoods because otherwise when you create jobs, the people taking those jobs are not going to want to live in your city,” he said.

Little signs of improvement have already begun to spring up.

“When we had that first house on the street that went vacant, we know what that did to the value of all other houses on the street and the psychology of people living there,” Dyster said. “Now you’ve got the opposite situation. All of a sudden somebody comes into that block and rehabilitates a house where nobody thought it could have been saved, it creates the same sort of effect. It flips the psychology of the neighborhood.”

For John Rossman, who was jobless just months ago, working on the home has other benefits.

“It gives me a peace of mind I didn’t know,” he said.

email: cspecht@buffnews.com