Improving city’s housing stock

Take a good look at houses along Route 60 in the city of Dunkirk – they may not look that way in the not-too-distant future.

Steve Ald is the Director of Real Estate Development for Southern Tier Environmental Living Inc. and recently announced a proposal that could change the view people see coming into the city on the state highway. STEL is looking to invest some $10 million in the project, with the city being required to kick in $100,000. The city’s portion would be a one-time shot, likely from its Community Development Block Grant housing rehabilitation budget.

“We saw the need; Dunkirk has a lot of housing that’s abandoned and deteriorating. Even some of the stuff that’s occupied looks awful from the street,” Ald explained of STEL’s interest. “We’ve used this funding to develop housing all over the state, even down in New York City. We did one in Brooklyn so we know we can bring this money to Dunkirk and since we’re based here in Dunkirk, we’d like to help out our hometown.”

STEL converted the former Cardinal Mindszenty High School into apartments and built a 24-unit adult home project in the town of Pomfret. It’s also done housing projects in Buffalo, Ithaca, Rochester and Brooklyn.

Ald was asked, why Route 60?

“It’s a main entry point. Central Avenue is decent. I don’t think there’s a whole lot of problems down Central, but Route 60, everyone who comes in off the Thruway they come down Route 60 to get to downtown Dunkirk,” he replied. “Half the people who get here, or probably more, come in on the Thruway, so I think it’s really important to fix up the main entryway into the city.

“One of the things that we’re going to do is have the architect match as closely as possible the color scheme and types of materials they used for the Boardwalk Market, so when people are driving into the city they’re going to see houses that look similar and when they get down to the waterfront they say, ‘oh, there’s something else that looks like those nice houses on Route 60.’ It ties it all together, makes people think of Dunkirk as this nice little waterfront town, nice little houses and waterfront feature.”

Ald said STEL would have to get some 30 sites under contract for purchase by STEL before an application can be made. He added there have been no talks with property owners until STEL informed city officials about the plan. The program will require STEL to lease a property for 15 years before it could sell to whoever was there after year 15, provided that person or family could afford it.

“They don’t have to buy it and they may not be qualified to buy it,” Ald explained. “They’d have to be able to show they can afford to buy it, but it would be at a greatly reduced price, much less than what that house cost if we didn’t have the funding sources that we have to pay for a high percentage of the costs.”

Mayor Anthony J. Dolce said his reaction was positive when STEL first brought the proposal to the city in 2012. Dolce and Development Director Steve Neratko spoke to the OBSERVER about the STEL plan.

“We love this proposal right along the main corridor on Route 60 all the way to the waterfront potentially, and it ties in very nicely with one of our two HUD target areas as well,” Dolce stated. “We’re going to do what we can to see this project move forward. The one ask they’ve made of us is budgeting, putting aside HUD dollars in 2015 as a sort of, I don’t want to say a match, but a way to show our support for the program. That’s something that I believe we would be able to do using 2015 dollars.”

In addition to the $100,000, the city would be helping to identify problem homes.

“They have spoken to (Building and Zoning Officer Al Zurawski’s) office and they did ask for input from Steve and myself,” Dolce added. “(They asked) if there are houses that we saw that we thought would be a good investment. Just knowing they’re going to focus on that corridor down Route 60 is great.”

Finding 30 houses in the city on Route 60 to be in the program might be difficult.

“I think they did say they would be willing to work off of that if they weren’t able to get to the 30 there. That will be challenging, but there are other neighborhoods that could use some attention,” Dolce said.

The city would likely have some work to do associated with the project.

“From HUD standards, we would probably have to go monitor the property for five or seven years and during that time STEL would own it,” Neratko explained.

Chautauqua Opportun-ities Inc. currently has a contract with the city which expires at year’s end to help improve the city’s housing, but will probably roll over unexpended funds into 2015.

“In terms of housing rehab in the city they’re doing that project,” Neratko said of COI. “They are doing some of the homeowner training programs that they are hoping to utilize in cooperation with this. They are looking to do the painting program and that sort of thing next year. It’s more of the aesthetic work that needs to be done.”

Dolce said the city has old housing stock.

“When you have homes changing hands as often as they do in many cases, or tenants turning over as rapidly as they can, you don’t have people spending the time to invest in keeping up with the property,” he added. “So we welcome programs like the one STEL would like to do. … We really need to keep working on staying on top of these houses and address them before they get to this condition.”

Dolce said Zurawski’s office works on the problem housing, but it may be time for the city to take a tougher stance on code violators.

“I think what we could do more of is attempting to bring people to court to address situations. I’m all for the letter and saying you’ve got ‘x’ amount of time, but at that point if you don’t meet it, bring them in,” the mayor explained. “We just can’t let them get to the point where they’re beyond repair or get too expensive and they’re just not worth repairing.”

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