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, 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.

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