It was the one thing she hadn’t bargained for.
Before moving back from Philadelphia, Patty Macdonald knew all about Buffalo’s 19th century homes, walk-anywhere neighborhoods and the revival of downtown. She and her husband, new empty-nesters, grabbed a four-bedroom Italianate beauty within a drumbeat of Kleinhans Music Hall. She joined neighbors in resurrecting a pedestrian bridge, beautifying a nearby schoolyard and adding a bike lane.
What she hadn’t figured on were a handful of crumbling eyesores that pockmark her Allentown street. Some are long vacant; others house hookers and drug marts. All are owned by absentee landlords who control numerous properties. Macdonald figured a few calls to 911 and the city’s 311 hotline would sweep things clean.
Three years later, the only thing that has changed is her level of frustration.
“I started out very naive,” she told me in her comfortable living room. “Then I went to Housing Court and saw the same cases get adjourned over and over.”
Macdonald is 60, a sparking wire of a software expert with a doctorate in English. There have been, by her count, 62 separate owner appearances/adjournments/hearings logged for one house on her block – and it’s still battered and vacant.
Add Macdonald to a legion of activists, block club members and long-suffering residents who know the awful truth: Housing Court – aside from the fondly remembered era of activist judge Henry Nowak – is a toothless operation where slumlords get a full book of chances. Cases are adjourned for years, modest fines are seldom collected, and nobody goes to jail.
The result is a slumlord-infused infection that festers in neighborhoods across the city.
It is bad enough, when the disease infects battered streets of near-worthless property. It is worse in the recovering West Side and other neighborhoods, where vacant or drug- and hooker-laden houses are a ball and chain on revival. The drama-infested eyesores sap community spirit, retard regrowth, discourage investment and – if City Hall understands no other language – sabotage the property values that feed the city’s tax base.
Krista Bow-Palgutt, Macdonald’s friend and neighbor, said a house on her Allentown block just sold for $280,000. Across the street is a drug house that, until gutted by a recent fire, was the scene of sporadic nighttime gunfire.
“Property values are increasing. People are caring for their houses,” Bow-Palgutt said. “For the city not to protect and capitalize on that investment is lunacy.”
Macdonald, Bow-Palgutt and others like them are people a city can build around. Bow-Palgutt is 35, heads the Kleinhans Community Association and wants to raise her 3-year-old son here. Macdonald and her husband walk to Allentown restaurants and bike to Bisons games. They typify a wave of urban pioneers who are putting dollars and dreams into once-sketchy neighborhoods.
Holding back that tide are irresponsible absentee landlords looking to make a quick buck on the city’s back, at the expense of a legion of Patty Macdonalds.
It doesn’t have to be that way. In an eight-year run ending in 2010, Nowak transformed housing court into an arm of community development. With methods ranging from stiff fines, to jail time, to a network of neighborhood contacts, Nowak created a slumlord-hostile landscape. Numerous activists tell me it’s a high bar that successor Patrick Carney hasn’t come close to clearing.
There’s little excuse for inertia. Activists not only identify neighborhood diseases, they suggest common-sense cures for city officials. The short list ranges from escalating fines for multiple-property slumlords, to multiple-offender penalties, to attaching unpaid fines to property tax bills.
All of which would help Patty Macdonald – and others like her – to get the neighborhoods they deserve.