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Buffalo’s homeowners are aging fast. What will India Walton and Byron Brown do about it?

A woman in her 70s , with grey hair and wearing a purple sweater, looks down as she waters yellow flowers on her front porch.
Tom Dinki
Pamela Ward waters the flowers on the front porch of her North Buffalo home. Ward, a widow and retiree, has lived there for 44 years and plans to continue to age in place.

Pamela Ward can tell you exactly how many years she’s lived in her North Buffalo home. That's because it matches the age of her only child.

“We bought it when he was first born,” she explained. “[Forty-four] years.”

Now, as a 76-year-old widow and retiree, Ward enjoys the convenience of living just steps away from Hertel Avenue.

“You're close to everything. You can get to the bank, you can get your medicine, you can get a drink, you can get food,” she said. “What more do you need at my age? Nothing.”

One in four Buffalo homeowners, 25.6%, are like Ward and have lived in the same house for at least 30 years. That’s the second-highest percentage of any large metro in the nation, according to a recent studyof U.S. Census Bureau data.

Ward said her home is worth more now than when she bought it 44 years ago, but she'd just have to use the money to pay for another home, so she plans to stay where she's comfortable.
Tom Dinki
Ward said her home is worth more now than when she bought it 44 years ago, but she'd just have to use the money to pay for another home, so she plans to stay where she's comfortable.

And like a lot of older homeowners, Ward has no plans to leave anytime soon.

“You can get a good buck for your house now. I certainly could make a whole lot more money than I paid [for it],” she said. “But, I'm going to pay it to get back into another place. So why am I going to do that? No, thank you. I'll just stay right here.”

Whoever Buffalo’s next mayor is — be it Byron Brown or India Walton — has to balance the wishes of older homeowners who want to age in place, with the market demands of young families looking for their first homes.

Brown, who is holding a write-in campaign for an unprecedented fifth term, said his administration has helped older homeowners by lowering their property tax rates, while attracting young homebuyers with economic development projects.

“So our policies in the city of Buffalo not only have been good for senior homeowners, but have attracted young homeowners,” he said.

Yet over the next decade, many older homeowners may have no choice but to find a more age-friendly home, with no steps and wider doorways to account for walkers and wheelchairs, according to a recent reportby the Partnership for Public Good, a Buffalo-based progressive think tank.

That’s where affordable housing development comes into play, according to Brown. He said his administration has supported the building of 2,200 affordable units, with another 1,000 either proposed or under construction. Many of these units are age-friendly and targeted toward older adults.

Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown speaks to reporters outside American Medical Rescue in Buffalo July 26, 2021.
Tom Dinki
Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown speaks to reporters outside American Medical Rescue in Buffalo on July 26, 2021. Brown says affordable housing development will allow older adults to downsize and free up property for young buyers.

“So seniors will be able to age in place, downsize in the city of Buffalo, thus freeing up more housing opportunities for purchase for young people,” Brown said.

However, the Partnership for Public Good study found that even once older people put their homes on the market, they’re likely to fetch prices that are unaffordable for many young people. Either that or the homes will be in need of costly renovations, since older homeowners typically tend to spend less on routine maintenance than younger homeowners.

“The existing housing stock is aging and in need of a lot of repair,” said Robert Silverman, a University at Buffalo professor who studies affordable housing and shrinking cities. “And so that's kind of the dilemma Buffalo faces. Yes, there's an older population of homeowners, but what kind of homes are they actually living in? And do they represent real options for people when those homes actually hit the market again?”

Walton, the Democratic nominee who upset Brown in the June primary, said she’ll use left-over American Rescue Plan money to create a loan fund for young people who may not normally qualify for a mortgage.

“There are folks who have been renting homes for five to 10 years, and to me that is enough to take the risk to allow them the chance at homeownership,” she said. “We're using alternative methods of worthiness other than credit, such as work history, such as rental history, such as utility payments, to really be able to get people into homes faster.”

Walton was previously executive director of the Fruit Belt Community Land Trust. She said that model could help transfer homes from older people in need of age-friendly homes, to young families looking for their first home.

Democratic nominee for Buffalo mayor India Walton speaks outside the Tops Markets on Amherst Street in Buffalo upon getting endorsed by the union for Tops employees, United Food and Commercial Workers.
Tom Dinki
India Walton speaks outside the Tops Markets on Amherst Street in Buffalo on Sept. 29, 2021. Walton says a community land trust model could transfer homes from older adults looking for ranch-style homes to a younger family looking for their first home.

“The Land Trust is actually a great model where those [older homeowners] can put their existing home in trust, we can make sure that it stays permanently affordable, get a younger family in it and provide [the older homeowners] with a ranch-style home that they can live out the rest of their days in,” she said.

Silverman agrees with Brown and Walton that new construction is the solution. He said there hasn’t been enough across the country, especially since the 2008 housing crisis.

“There's just not enough new construction going on, especially targeted toward first-time homebuyers, that's really creating a space for millennials to break into the housing market,” he said.

However, Silverman isn’t completely sold on Walton’s nonprofit model. Yet he also doesn’t think Brown has properly leveraged the roughly 7,000 city-owned vacant lots into housing for young people.

“And that's something that hopefully whoever wins the election will think about in a more focused way,” he said. “Because there are opportunities to build housing that's within the reach of households with an income of $35-$40,000 a year. That would probably be like a single-family home that might be 1,200 to 1,500 square feet, selling for about $150,000. But there aren't really a lot of efforts being made at the local level to come up with strategies to actually promote that kind of development. That's what's really needed to kind of reach the millennial population and young families who are looking for homes in the region.”

As for Ward, she said it’s been more challenging doing upkeep to her home since her husband passed away eight years ago, since he “used to do everything.”

However, she’s never looked into a public program to help seniors fix up their home. She said the only thing she wants from the next mayor is a reasonable tax bill.

“It's my responsibility to take care of my home and I will do that,” she said, “but taxes, if they get out of sight, well … but so far they haven't. So that works for me.”

Early voting is now underway at 10 locations in the city. Election Day is Nov. 2.

Tom Dinki joined WBFO in August 2019 to cover issues affecting older adults.