By Justin Sondel
Niagara Gazette — A Niagara Falls organization working to educate, rehabilitate neighborhoods and provide affordable housing is growing quickly.
Jim Haid, the coordinator for the Isaiah 61 Project, said his group should be finished restoring a Whitney Avenue home the organization bought from the city by January and is looking to get started on other houses around the city during the Niagara Falls Planning Board’s meeting Wednesday evening.
“Our hope is to take more of these houses and do the same,” Haid said.
The planning board voted unanimously to approve six houses to come off the city’s long list of abandoned properties and sold to the not-for-profit for $500 each.
Haid and his agency will not take deed to all the houses at once, but will instead ask city council for approval to buy the houses one at a time until they have a better understanding of how quickly they will be able to complete each rehabilitation. But, with the houses already approved by the planning board, the organization has one less hurdle to pass in taking deed to each house.
“We’re hoping to continue to do this for the city, really at no cost to the city,” Haid said.
The Isaiah 61 Project buys city-owned houses and uses them to train underemployed and unemployed city residents in skilled labor in conjunction with Orleans Niagara BOCES. Students earn program certificates as they work with an instructor and volunteer contractors to repair the houses. Upon completion, the organization offers the house at a reasonable price and coordinates a low-interest loan for low- and moderate-income applicants.
Haid said the program has attracted many interested parties — students, foundations, volunteers — and there is enough support to move quickly on the next house. There are 10 students enrolled for next semester’s class.
“We have more students who want to be involved in the program,” Haid said. “Bu we need more teachers and we actually need more houses.”
Jason Seaberry, who will be one of the first participants to graduate from the program next week, told the planning board that the training gives he and his classmates a new sense of purpose.
“We get up every morning, we go there and we work hard,” he said.
Seth Piccirillo, director of the city’s Community Development department, worked with Haid and the city’s legal department to try to streamline the process for the organization.
He said the city wants to make the process run as smooth as possible for the group as they work to improve neighborhoods, put delinquent properties back onto the tax rolls and train community members for jobs in the skilled labor industry.
“There are some very good short-term and long-term benefits for the city,” Piccirillo said.
Picirillo said that the city will save around $200,000 — a conservative estimate - by selling the houses to the organization over the next three years. With the organization taking the deeds the city no longer has to maintain the properties, will not have to demolish them in the future and will eventually begin to collect taxes on the parcels again.
“From a financial standpoint alone this is an easy decision,” Piccirillo said. “Vacancy costs money. This will make the city money.”
And the financial benefits go beyond what can be easily quantified. By improving houses the organization will help to stabilize neighborhoods and encourage other homeowners to keep their properties in good shape. That will increases property values and makes the city a more attractive place to live, Piccirillo said.
“You might start to see some real neighborhood changes based on these houses,” Piccirillo said.Contact reporter Justin Sondel at 282-2311, ext. 2257.