Tuesday, October 18, 2011

House Warming

Because of the incredible time it takes to physically receive the deed to the house (even though it's been paid in full) our actions in it are forced to be incognito. Without the deed, we're not legally allowed to even be on the property. The neighbors all seem grateful for our presence, but bureaucrats will be less excited. Should an inspector roll through the neighborhood, we need to maintain a certain level of discretion. Boards have been left up on the front and sides where visible from the street. And for now, our intervention has been timid. With colder months approaching though, our hands are being forced. We need to establish a livable space and start working out the vital systems necessary for survival in Buffalo's harsh winter.

Having cleaned up and reorganized the bulk of the house's contents (10 boxes of clothes, 3 boxes of shoes, 3 box springs, 2 mattresses, 2 large area rugs, and at least 5 boxes worth of miscellaneous dishes, tools, and other useful items), we can start to more carefully consider the future of this space. Setting up a base camp within the house will allow us to concentrate the immediately needed systems while freeing up the rest of the house for development. For purposes of security and traffic, we choose to begin this in the attic.

Working by candlelight, we thoroughly wash the floor and walls which have been sitting in dust for over a decade. The only mold-free box spring we have and a piece of carpet padding make up the two beds. Without an established heat source, the house isn't much warmer than outside. We have to rely on our own body heat to keep us warm, so we opt to create a sort of "tent" using the solar pool cover we recovered several weeks ago. At the peak of the attic is a long steel pole formerly used to hang clothes off of. By moving this and the attached chain to a lower position, it creates half of the necessary structure for the tent. Half of an iron bed frame, found tucked in the corner of the attic can then be hung from string at the other side, and we're able to drape the tarp over the two. The thousands of air pockets in this material will act as an insulating barrier to help keep our sleeping shelter warm, and its large size is easily able to create an enclosed space.

"All good architecture leaks"

...which already makes ours something of a masterpiece. Having cleaned up and organized most of the debris (old clothes, mostly), and tending to various other needs during a rain storm, we get a better sense for its waterproofing and lack thereof.

On the west side of the attic and in the rooms below are molds, slugs, and waterlogged materials. Though a look at the roof doesn't seem too bad, the drips of water quickly build up to destructive volumes. It's hard to tell how long the leaks have been going on; The finish materials are entirely ruined, but the framing may still have its integrity. We don't have the materials to fix up the roof now, nor cooperative weather. But we can channel what is seeping through the roof from the attic out through the eave.

The rear end of the house that contains the bathroom and kitchen has obvious irreversible water damage. Though we can't hope to salvage much, we do our best to stop this decay too. By simply laying out our scavenged inflatable pool (a piece of which we used for our previous camp), we can keep out additional debris, mold, and toxins while we find time to more permanently address it.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Going once, going twice...

Each year, the city of Buffalo holds a Foreclosure auction of city-owned properties acquired through owed back-taxes, extended abandonment, death of the owner with no inheritor, arson, or other dealings. Although usually held in the end of October, the event was pushed up to October 3-5 this year, giving us a jump of the gun to advance our work. Quickly finding a list of foreclosed properties on the city's website, we began the long process of narrowing down the 2,380 properties up for grabs. Criteria considered included:

Size - small enough for two people to manage
Proximity to Main Street - public transportation is a must
Sense of community - as both a catalyst and receptor to our ideas
Condition of the property - problematic enough where creative intervention is needed, but within reason
Cost - within a budget reminiscent to most lower-class Buffalonians

We reorganize the list according to assessed values, and narrow the list to the best of our ability with Google maps + street view and the information available on www.zillow.com, but ultimately we need to visit each property so get a true sense of its condition. The heavy rain we endure is unexpectedly fortunate, allowing us to quickly identify leakage issues in the houses.

Among the thousands that showed up Monday morning were families looking for a new home, small businesses looking for new storefronts, landlords looking to expand their revenue, and at least two student-activists hoping to resuscitate one of the many homes that would otherwise not sell. And to potential squatters, this is a live cataloging of vacant homes. From the hundreds of lower end properties in a state of limbo, even the homeless and penniless may find refuge.

Continuing our effort to only use those materials deemed unwanted, we hone in on the properties "suggested for demolition." Having toured a number of these properties in particular, some have thorough and irreversible water damage, torn up walls, floors, and roofs from erosion or even heavy fire damage. Others have much more manageable issues: cosmetics, light plumbing, or broken windows. As the auctioneer reads off several of the better properties we've had our eyes on, the room is silent...despite starting bids of $500-1000. In a starving city, we're surprised at the lack of initiative. Great opportunity continues to be met with neglect and abandonment.

The catch to these auctions is that the property you truly want is after all of your backup options. And after winning a property, the bidder has roughly one hour to come up with a deposit. Failing to pay the deposit will result in the removal of your number for future bids. So do you hold out for your dream house or play it safe and commit to something you know you can get your hands on? One of us bids on a property on Woltz Avenue. Uncontested, it's ours for $800. As two separately registered bidders though, the other of us is free to go for something better without the risk of having nothing. Ultimately this allows us to back out of that first purchase with something better and no consequences.