Buffalo NY has long been thought of as The City Devastated. With over half of the metro’s boom-era population gone, finances tight, and much of the landscape dirtied with vacant and/or dilapidated houses as well as former industrial sites, the reputation is easy to understand. Over 15% of housing units in Buffalo were vacant in 2010, which is 38% greater than the national vacancy rate of 11.6%. To cast the metric in absolute terms, there were about 21,000 empty housing units in Buffalo among a total of ~133,400, though note this does not encompass the 16,000+ vacant lots comprising 3,300 acres within city limits that once were or could someday become housing. A vacancy rate of 15% thus vastly underestimates the city’s general emptiness, and so it concurrently underestimates the opportunities that exist for renewal and for scheming about what could be.
It is this sense of opportunity that compels me to gush for a bit about how Buffalo (not so much its outerlying suburbs) has captured my heart. When I compare it to other cities large and small that I’ve lived in (a moderately representative sample of North America that spans Vermont, Quebec, Nevada, New Mexico, and Minnesota) – Buffalo is completely unique in how people from all walks of life – for lack of a better word – mesh: they co-exist and regard one another with genuine warmth and without pretension. What’s more, every neighborhood hosts troves of beautiful though oft neglected historic buildings as well as open space- space that is sometimes parkland and most-times vacant lots… but hey! You don’t need wealth or political rapport to make use of them in virtually any way you’d like. That’s more than residents of most other cities can say.
The Public Auction
During public auctions, the city sells (to the highest bidder) properties it has acquired through tax foreclosure – these include residential and commercial/institutional properties, as well as vacant lots. This year’s list includes 5,000+ properties, over 2,000 of which are vacant lots, in addition to a select few non-residential properties – like this church! Properties typically go for less than their assessed value, largely because of the auction’s stipulations: the winning bidder MUST PAY CASH. That means 20% down the day of the auction, with the rest due by mid-December. There is no opportunity to get help through a mortgage or line of credit. There are other rules in place to prevent people from buying up houses for cheap and then flipping them – if you purchase a property you must hold on to it for at least 2 years.
While this year’s auction happens in late October, the listings were published in mid-September. The preparation window from now til auction date is a meticulous survey of the cityscape’s real estate offerings. The addresses and sales prices of the properties from previous auctions allows us to examine in which areas of the city are there the greatest opportunities for picking up a gem–that is, a property with potential, for cheap?
Working with the data
My computer-pro-boyfriend got to work geocoding the list of auctionable addresses from 2012 and 2011 in Google Map’s API. We currently have the 2012 properties mapped out, along with the assessed values for each – and are using this map to visit and strategize which properties and parts of the city to go after. I will publish this map after the auction takes place, so that we can compare the assessed value with the auction sale price of each property. This will be a truly powerful map, showing how much a property sold for at auction as a proportion of its actual worth – I suspect that some neighborhoods will be substantially more undervalued than others.
The map below shows the prices of properties sold at last year’s auction, to get a sense of how this year’s might go. The large red upside-down teardrops are properties that did not sell, while the rest are color-coded by sale value. Over 2,230 properties were up for auction, though only 1,214 of them sold, and of those that did go, the average sale value was only $6,193. I look forward to seeing how the 2012 auction pans out later this month, with more than twice as many properties available.