In Buffalo, Fruit Belt residents call for land trust to prevent displacement
Flanked by fellow Fruit Belt residents and advocates in an empty lot at the corner of High and Mulberry streets in Buffalo, India Walton passionately laid out the many reasons she wants to see a land trust established to control the more than 200 vacant, city-owned properties in her neighborhood on the city’s East Side.
Walton, who has only lived in the largely African-American neighborhood for about a year, said she chose to move to the rapidly changing area that abuts the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus because it was a place where she felt a strong sense of community.
“As I was traveling through neighborhoods on the East Side and I came through the Fruit Belt I said, ‘Now that’s somewhere you can raise a family,’” Walton said.
And amid fears that developers are eagerly waiting to buy up the city lots to build housing for doctors and other medical campus professionals, Walton said, a land trust must be established to ensure that residents will have a say in how the publicly owned land is used and that the character of the neighborhood is not erased by the presence of the campus.
The Buffalo Common Council established a moratorium on the sale of city-owned lots in the neighborhood while it develops a strategic plan. But some fear that the halt on sales will be lifted in order to allow the construction of a proposed grocery store and residential development.
“A land grab will not occur here,” Walton said. “We are here today to demand that the city of Buffalo relinquish the 200-plus city-owned vacant lots and give the community 100 percent control, so that we can ensure there will be development without displacement.”
Walton was one of several residents to speak in favor of establishing a land trust for the neighborhood during the rally and barbecue on June 22. There, members of the Community First Alliance - a coalition of advocacy and neighborhood organizations - mingled with residents, University at Buffalo students and interested passersby, talking about the neighborhood and how it has changed, for better or worse, since the medical campus started to build up its 6 million square feet of space in the early 2000s.
Now with a new state law that allows municipalities to fast-track city-owned properties for sale to land banks, the alliance and residents see an opportunity to protect against the ongoing rush to buy up land around the medical campus, an expansive network of medical and research offices that has seen tens of millions of dollars in state and federal investment, including money from Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Buffalo Billion initiative.
Franchelle Hart is the executive director of Open Buffalo, an advocacy group that is part of the Community First Alliance and has been working with Fruit Belt residents and groups on the land trust and other initiatives. She hopes the state legislation, passed during the last week of the legislative session earlier this month, will allow them to get the land trust in place.
“Before the legislation we didn’t have the ability to do that,” Hart said, “Now we possibly do.”
While the Community First Alliance has launched its campaign to establish a land trust, details of how the deal would work have yet to be hashed out.
On the day of the event, Partnership for the Public Good, a research- and policy-focused nonprofit, released a report outlining the benefits of the land trust, detailing the reasons it is needed and offering examples of cities - Boston, Chicago - that have successfully set up similar trusts.
Essentially, the trust would be governed by a board with a majority of seats held by community members, but would also include bankers, land use experts and other professionals. The entity would own the land and lease it to residents, who would own the buildings on the land, but would be limited in how much profit they could make off a sale, in order to keep housing affordable for the people who have lived there for decades, according to the report.
Steve Peraza, a policy analyst for PPG, was on hand to discuss the alliance’s vision with residents.
There are a number of other tools that give community groups the power to help shape the direction of their neighborhood, like land banks, inclusionary zoning and expanding the city’s homesteading program, where city-owned houses and lots are offered for next to nothing to owners who promise to live there for a number of years.
Still, the land trust would offer residents more power than any of those methods, Peraza said.
“None of those afford the community the opportunity to be in the decision making group,” he said.
Not everyone is convinced that a land trust is necessary to ensure that the character of the community is preserved as the medical campus continues to expand.
Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes, who sponsored the land bank legislation, said she feels that there are mechanisms in place will allow Fruit Belt residents to be heard without creating a separate organization.
With the bill passed, the path is now cleared for the Buffalo Erie Niagara Land Improvement Corporation, the regional land bank established in 2012, to take properties from across Western New York without having to first allow them to be put up for auction at municipal foreclosure sales. This prevents speculators from buying up properties in transitioning neighborhoods.
The bill will give the land bank even more power to plan and use land in a way that benefits the community, she said.
Land bank board members, appointed by Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown, Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz and mayors of several smaller member cities, will take into consideration the concerns and wants of citizens in all of the neighborhoods in which it operates, Peoples-Stokes added.
“The assumption that the community needs to be invigorated or empowered to get engaged is something that I don’t necessarily agree with,” Peoples-Stokes said. “Because the community is already engaged.”
Brown, whose spokesperson said the mayor would try to contact City & State, but who ultimately did not respond, has sent his planning division into the neighborhood to hold meetings over the last few months, taking input while developing the strategic plan for the Fruit Belt.
Through that type of outreach, the citizens are able to make sure that they have control over the direction of their neighborhood, said Peoples-Stokes, an ally of Brown.
“I think it’s the way things should be,” Peoples-Stokes said. “It’s the natural order of things. If you elect someone to speak your voice, then they have to listen to you first. They can’t speak your voice if they haven’t heard you.”
But, Peraza said, without the ability to cast votes on the way the land is used, citizens can’t guarantee that elected officials and their appointees will do what’s best for them.
“That’s why the 100 percent community control is a really important prong to this,” he said. “The community members are involved in determining the nature of that development.”
As the campus has grown more and more, workers have been interacting with the neighborhood, and not always in a positive manner. For years residents have worked with elected officials and medical campus staff to try to address some of the issues caused as the new neighbors have bumped up against one another.
In recent years, as the campus has grown from 7,000 employees to 12,000, with another 5,000 expected by 2019, community members, many of whom do not have driveways because their houses were built before the popularization of cars, would often have to park blocks away from their homes, as medical workers would park on their streets to avoid monthly fees at the parking ramps.
During the last week of session a bill to allow for a permitted parking system that would preserve half of the spots for residents was passed, a compromise that took several years to negotiate, as the hospital employees union, CSEA, didn’t want its employees to be forced into the pay lots.
Peoples-Stokes said the deal is a sign of the progress being made as the residents and medical campus look to work out their issues.
“The growth of the medical corridor is a good problem to have,” she said. “And it basically takes everybody - citizens, local electeds, statewide electeds and federal electeds - to make sure that happens in a way that prospers the entire community.”
Back at the barbecue, Hart walked through the smoke of the grill as it floated out over the neighborhood, using Facebook’s live streaming service to broadcast the Community First Alliance’s message to its followers. Chatting with residents and advocates, she emphasized that those who live in the neighborhood have a right to play a role in the process.
As for the cooperation of city officials, she has her doubts. After the alliance put out signs on vacant, city-owned lots promoting the event, city crews removed them. And when the group brought the idea of a land trust to City Hall, officials there seemed skeptical that citizens would be able to manage the lots, she said.
“It’s kind of a contradiction,” Hart said. “We have this great legislation that just passed the state. How do we leverage that so that the community wins in that?”
Sharon Everett, a Veterans Affairs field examiner who has lived in the neighborhood since the 1960s, said she has seen the Fruit Belt’s ups and downs, but since the medical campus started she is certain there has been a concerted effort to push people out.
Police never came through her neighborhood before the medical offices started to sprout up, but now they roll through constantly, Everett said. But they’re not there for the residents - they’re there to protect medical campus workers walking to their cars, she added.
Many times she has seen people from City Hall come in with some plan or another over the years to help residents, only to end up failing or making things worse in the end.
She’s not sure if the land trust will stop developers from pushing people out.
“If the land trust can help the community, fine,” Everett said.
But, with everything that has happened in the past, she has her doubts.
“I’m just kind of skeptical,” she said.