I recently learned that one of the city’s truly fantastic Lower West Side mansions had been transferred into receivership by the City Housing Court. It is a building that I have been following for years because it is a magnificent and literally unique building showing signs of inept or delinquent ownership. The shingle style house, located at 306 Hudson in the Fargo neighborhood is unique because instead of the typical cedar shingles covering its walls it is clad in slate shingles. I am not sure if the slate is original but it is quite interesting and I have never seen another house clad like this anywhere. Hearing that this building was in receivership and that its tenants had been evicted sent a shiver down my spine. The city cannot afford to lose this wonderful and irreplaceable treasure.
I was not sure what receivership actually was but the prospect of this house sitting vacant cannot be good so I did a little asking around about. The City Court did not respond to my queries. City Hall would not comment directly but suggested I talk to one of the receivers. I did end up getting a lot of great information from several neighbors and the Matt Urban Center. Matt is one of the non-profit corporations that is often appointed as a receiver in these cases. Their website states that they have 80 housing units under management.
Here is how it works. Receivership is a court action which is directed against repeat housing court offenders. These building owners typically have several court orders for repair of code violations over a long period of time issued against their properties. They often own multiple properties which receive constant complaints from neighbors for the condition of the buildings and for the disruptions caused by the bad tenants that they tend to attract. The court issues a directive that the buildings be placed in the hands of a temporary manager (receiver). The receiver will be given the right to collect rent and the responsibility to make the court ordered repairs. They are not given ownership so they cannot sell the property. The property owner is still responsible for paying taxes, utilities, mortgages and other bills. They cannot collect rent to do this. The receiver can also evict and search for new tenants. They receive a 5% commission for their work. The receivership ends when repairs are completed and all other warrants and penalties are fulfilled to the satisfaction of the court.
In a perfect world the repairs are completed, the building is filled with good rent paying tenants, and the owner learns a lesson and operates the buildings in a competent productive way. The houses are in court, however, because the world of the inner city is far from perfect. Bad tenants, bad owners, and old buildings are a perfect storm of destruction waged against Buffalo’s architectural heritage. In many of these cases the buildings have become un-rentable for any multitude of reasons. Without rent repairs cannot be made and management fees cannot be paid. Often, the owners will walk away or stop paying utilities and the buildings eventually become abandoned property to ultimately be taken over by the city. Vacant buildings are in danger of being stripped of their pipes, fixtures, and wiring making them uninhabitable and expensive to repair. These situations are important to neighborhoods because one bad building can seed the destruction of an entire block in poor neighborhoods.
Receivership is often the last stop on a slippery slope to demolition. That is what makes me very worried about 306 Hudson. This house does have a thread of a chance for a pretty good future, however. It is in a neighborhood with a core of dedicated neighborhood groups in a part of the city seeing steady and even dramatic increases in real estate value. The slate house and several others recently placed in receivership are owned by an allegedly notorious west side slum lord. These other properties may not have much of a chance at a bright future. Many of them are typical west side properties of the type that have been abused and remodeled to death over the decades. They all could be great assets to the community with competent ownership and some sympathetic improvements. But that is a lot to hope for in a poor inner city neighborhood.
The blue building pictured here at 288 Bird Avenue is a stand out example from this group of properties in receivership. Unlike many west side properties it still has much of its wonderful detailing. Look at those great third floor windows! It is only a few blocks from Buffalo State College in a neighborhood with great potential that is still suffering from decline and poverty. It could be an anchor of improvement on this corner in the right hands.
Unfortunately receivership is often no more than a stop-gap. If the city had a comprehensive plan it would have a next step in place for these properties. The two corners pictured here could be the productive building blocks in an amazing city if used properly to rebuild these neighborhoods. The thought of more plastic houses instead of these two makes me feel sick to my stomach.