OLEAN — While low income residents have historically struggled to find safe and affordable housing, some nonprofit groups and community leaders said they are ready to help change that.
Stephanie Timblin, executive director of Rural Revitalization Corporation, said she hopes to partner with the city’s code enforcement office if Olean Common Council passes a proposed law that requires inspections of all rental units upon vacancy.
“The housing stock in Olean, and cities like Olean across New York state and the Northeast region, is falling into a state of disrepair, and it’s imperative that we take a look at new housing, new plans, new development,” she said. “We can’t continue to put a Band-Aid on a bleeding, gaping wound.”
Timblin said homeowners and landlords alike deal with deteriorating housing, but most of her work involves helping homeowners in Olean get access to grants or other resources.
“I’m constantly faced with ensuring that people don’t fall through the cracks,” Timblin said.
While Timblin wants to help many of the renters who call her office, most federal and state assistance funds currently only benefit owner-occupied homes. She thinks a solution exists in partnering with the city on development projects, so she said she reached out to the city of Olean, the city of Salamanca and the Cattaraugus County Land Bank about rehabilitating or replacing their “dilapidated” housing stock.
“So far, I can tell you the city has a plan but I’m unaware of what it is. In the city of Salamanca, routinely the code enforcement officer does not respond to me. And the Cattaraugus County Land Bank does not yet have a mechanism in place to do that,” she said. “I’m jumping up and down over here on North Union Street: ‘Give me your housing stock, let me have it, let me fix it, restore it,’ and — radio silence.”
One of those issues is zombie properties owned by the city or county. Several generate complaints before and after they are posted, dragging down property value around them.
Dave Breman, of Olean, currently has a West Green Street home that sits next door to a city-owned property. He hates the smells that come from the structure and is tired of finding fallen shingles in his driveway.
“I have complained, my neighbors have complained — why isn't anything getting done?” he said.
Demolition — which officials said usually cost between $20,000 and $30,000 per house — is currently the go-to solution in Olean, but the city’s budget is not currently outfitted to address that issue. They are receiving help from the Cattaraugus County Land Bank Corp. which on Aug. 23 approved the demolition of three Olean zombie properties.
But John Dennis of Cattaraugus Community Action said rather than just tearing homes down, federally-funded and state-controlled Small Cities Community Development Block Grant awards could help the city fix them up.
He said it usually takes no more than six months to secure a grant, and then the receiving entity must complete the work within two years. Like most federal and state grants, funding is reimbursed, so the city would have to provide the initial capital.
A block grant worth $850,000, Dennis said, is enough to fix up as many as 36 single family units, or at least 25 if more extensive work is needed. Grants to cities are capped at $400,000 by the state, but counties may apply for larger awards.
Dennis added well-deployed resources can go a long way to address blight in neighborhoods.
“If you develop 3 or 4 houses on the corner of a block, it will change the personality of the block. People will pay more attention to how their home looks,” he said.
Dennis has worked redeveloping neighborhoods in the area for 13 years, and he said in that time he has never been asked by the city to partner with them on finding grants. However, he’s more than happy to start now to help address blight issues.
“It’s not one single person’s responsibility, I feel,” he said. “It’s all of us working.”