The recent discovery of a woman’s murdered and dismembered body in an abandoned house on Willow Avenue has once again brought to the fore the problems created by the presence of more than 700 vacant homes and businesses here.
And mayoral candidate John Accardo says he can offer up a solution.
Over the past half century, the loss of jobs here as factories closed or relocated resulted in a drastic population loss in Niagara Falls, from more than 100,000 in 1960 to 49,000 or fewer today.
The result has been having to maintain far more infrastructure – roads, sewers and other utilities – than is normally needed for a population of that size. A side effect has been the proliferation of abandoned buildings in every section of the city, including stable neighborhoods such as DeVeaux and LaSalle.
The traditional method of dealing with these vacant structures has been to wait until they are seized for back taxes and then put them on a list for demolition.
Ironically, many of these buildings are salvageable when the owner walks away, but soon fall into disrepair and neglect. By the time they come up on the city’s list, most are suited only for the wrecking ball.
“What we need is a thorough inventory of all the abandoned houses in the city,” Accardo said. “We need to determine what can be saved, and take steps to preserve those as best as we can.”
Accardo cited an abandoned house on Weston Avenue not far from Hyde Park as an example.
“This home is in an otherwise nice neighborhood,” he said. “IF the home were restored somebody would surely want to live there.”
He’s proposed putting together a volunteer force, made up of block club members and neighbors of the houses in question.
“They have an interest in this because one of these house can drag down property values for the entire area,” he said.
Roger Spurback, who headed up the block clubs here for many years and maintains a strong interest in conditions in the city, said Accardo’s idea is a good one.
“You get one abandoned house on a street and it’s like having a tooth knocked out,” he said. “It’s unsightly to begin with, and then the ones around it start to get wiggly. Before too long they start falling out.”
In his decades of involvement, Spurback said, he’s seen block after block and neighborhood after neighborhood slide downhill with what began as a single abandoned house. Canvassing the neighbors near one such former residence, Spurback and Accardo were pleasantly surprised by the number of people who said they would gladly take part in cleaning up the place, inside and out.
“We could fill a truck up with garbage from a couple of these places and drop it off at City Hall,” Spurback laughed.
But he’d be the first to tell you that the problem of abandoned housing is no laughing matter in a declining city such as Niagara Falls. Two boys were killed in a fire on 19th Street a few years back while exploring a vacant open house. Drug addicts regularly use them as places to use, drug dealers use them as office, prostitutes use them as ersatz bordellos, thieves use them to hide stolen goods and as we saw earlier this month, psychopathic serial killers use them as a place to dump bodies.
For his part, Niagara Falls Mayor Paul Dyster, while promoting the Hamister Hotel and the Wonderfalls hotels, and cricket fields, has done little to alleviate the problem. Seemingly more interested in the housing provided to the penguin population at the Aquarium of Niagara than he is about neighborhood conditions for the people who twice elected him, Dyster has kept to the list system and seen anywhere from a dozen to 25 empty houses razed in each of the eight years he’s sat in the mayor’s office.
An attempt to “save” an abandoned house and put it on the real estate market here blew up in his face when incompetent workers from Isaiah 61, a religious not for profit heavily subsidized by Niagara Falls taxpayers under the Dyster regime, removed load bearing walls that allowed the entire structure to collapse into the basement.
Accardo said that Dyster’s efforts simply haven’t been good enough.
“There are more abandoned buildings in the city right now than there were on the day he first took office,” the former city councilman said. “He’s actually promoting the construction of new low income housing here that will drive the market down even further.”