A single family home at 1338 Centre Ave. in Niagara Falls collapsed over the weekend after a crew from Isaiah 61, the not for profit corp., that rehabs homes while teaching students building trades, removed the bearing walls, sources say.
While denials have been spun out by Dyster administration officials, eye witnesses say they saw Isaiah 61 workers and students at the home during the fall.
The house is owned by the Highland Community Revitalization Corp., a not for profit group that also does renovations on homes.
The roof on the Centre Ave. home fell into the basement over the weekend as the walls pushed out and were ready to fall.
The city was alerted when a neighbor called the fire department on Sunday to say the house was falling.
After making an inspection, the fire department referred the matter to code enforcement which is responsible for emergency demolitions.
"Yes, the roof ended up in the basement," Acting Code Enforcement Director Louis Fontana told the Reporter. "There was no way we could have left it that way. I spoke to the mayor on Sunday and told him what would have happened (if we didn't demolish the building.) Thank God nobody got hurt."
1338 Centre Ave. was the third home Isaiah 61 has worked on in the three years they have been getting city, state, and federal subsidies to renovate homes in Niagara Falls.
When questioned about the work on the house, Fontana said, "They took out interior partitions and the roof pulled the walls out. They demolished support walls - everything was gone. They must have pulled supports that were holding up the rafters."
Fontana told the Reporter that Regional Environmental Demolition (RED) won the emergency demolition bid out of a field of two bidders for the sum of $34,222.
Mayor Paul A. Dyster later denied the demolition was $34,222, claiming it was $15,000, but RED confirmed the sum was $34,222 for the emergency demolition.
When asked who would pay for the cost of demolition, Fontana said he did not know.
RED began the demolition within hours of winning the bid and by nightfall Sunday all that remained of the 95-year-old home was a pile of debris heaped over its basement.
The house was formerly owned by a city firefighter who had donated it to Highland Community Revitalization Corp.
According to sources, at the request of Mayor Dyster and the City's Community Development Director Seth Piccirillo, the house renovation was turned over to Isaiah 61 to fix and teach students on the job training.
A contractor who filed the permit on the property on behalf of Highland Community Revitalization Corp. inspected the Centre Ave. property about 10 days before it collapsed.
He told the Reporter that he saw a number of Isaiah 61 students and a teacher working there and that workers removed walls.
When he arrived at the scene he said all that held the roof up were studs on 24 inch centers and 2 x 4's.
Fortunately tragedy was averted because when the roof finally collapsed Isaiah 61 teachers and students were not inside the dwelling.
In removing walls, however, it appears clear that workers elected not to follow the architectural plans designed by Kelley Culp Burton of Wheatfield, a licensed architect, who was hired to draw plans for the renovation of Centre Ave in conformity with city and state building codes. Her plans were filed with the city code enforcement department before the work was started.
Burton's plans did not call for the removal of any walls - load bearing or otherwise - an inspection of the plans showed.
The Reporter has tentatively identified the instructor who, sources say, led his team to remove walls that allowed the house to collapse but are withholding his name until he is given an opportunity to be interviewed.
Three city hall sources familiar with the Isaiah 61 project, including two city workers, say that he was hired to continue "the charade" that the Isaiah 61 project is alive and active independent of the city's Community Development Department in order to secure city funds from the council.
Community Development Director Seth Piccirillo has assumed virtual management of Isaiah 61 after its founder and executive director James Haid suddenly left town eight months ago.
This is not the first time Isaiah 61 has gotten unwanted headlines.
Last summer the Reporter learned that Isaiah 61's Hyde Park Blvd headquarters, store and school where they teach unemployed people building trades skills was condemned by the city because of code violations.
City inspectors found that Isaiah 61had hijacked electrical service for their store and school using extension cords plugged into a building next door.
The building was shut down, the school and store closed, until the high voltage fire hazard was fixed.
Then, on September 15, Dyster presented a request to the city council for $500,000 in casino cash for the city to renovate an abandoned fire hall on Highland Avenue for a new store and school for Isaiah 61.
The council approved the request.
The Reporter learned that on September 22, Haid quit Isaiah 61 and moved to Utica NY for a position as director of the Utica Gospel Rescue Mission, a homeless shelter.
The Reporter has claimed that either Haid deliberately deceived Dyster or that Dyster knew at the time he secured half a million in funding from the council for Isaiah 61 that Haid had planned to leave town, but that Dyster withheld that information from the council since Haid was Isaiah 61's founder, executive director, its driving force and sole public face.
After the Reporter broke the story of Haid leaving town after $500,000 was approved by the council for the mayor to renovate offices for Isaiah 61, the Utica Observer Dispatch contacted Haid.
Haid told the Observer that he didn’t want to dwell on his decision to leave Niagara Falls, and added that it was “up to God” to decide whether the Isaiah 61 organization he left behind would be able to continue in his absence.
Despite Haid's departure, Dyster kept the $500,000, along with another $132,000 grant, and said the project would continue.
During Haid's tenure the not for profit received grants from the New York State Power Authority ($157,000), Community Development ($70,000) and the John R. Oishei Foundation ($200,000).
The $360,000 in federal, state, city and private grant money was used by Isaiah 61 to pay salaries and to rehab a single residential property at 2215 Whitney Ave., a home that has been listed for sale for about a year for $30,000 but has not yet attracted a buyer.
Piccirillo contacted the Reporter after the publication of the print edition of this story and acknowledged that Isaiah 61 workers were working on the property but he could neither confirm nor deny that workers removed any walls but would investigate the matter further.
A city hall source familiar with the project said that whatever the workers did, it caused the collapse.