So I have an alternate take on City Hall. I grew up in a big city and took a school tour of our City Hall: it seemed so grand, and like a place you only go on school tours. A place for grownups with important business, a place I’d probably never go again. And while I’ve never been back to Atlanta’s seat of local government, in Buffalo it’s a different story. The things buying a derelict house will do for you…
When we started looking at vacant house #1, we were fortunate to have the guidance of a good friend who’d bought a few vacant properties in Buffalo before. She and I met for breakfast at her house and biked down to City Hall that morning. Lesson #1: Go to City Hall in the morning. Often the people you want to talk to won’t be there in the afternoon.
Lesson #2: Don’t go to just one office while you’re there. You’ve already made the trip! If you’re initiating the process, you’ll need to talk to a bunch of people and it really helps if that conversation happens face to face. This usually happens fairly organically in my experience: talk to whomever’s at the desk, who either can help you, gets someone who can or tells you where else you should go. Lesson #3: if you’re not there with someone who already knows which offices to visit or where they are, the people working security desk on the main floor are super knowledgeable. The big directory boards are tricky to read. Lesson #4: some elevators go to some floors, some go to others. All are super fancy. Lesson #5: Buffalo’s City Hall is architecturally very cool.
We started at the Demolitions office. Contrary to what I’d expected, it’s not difficult to have demolition on a particular house delayed while you try to buy the property. Buffalo has a huge backlog of demo projects, and as long as your particular house hasn’t been bid out for demo already you should buy yourself, and the house, some time. You’re saving the city the cost of demo and offering to pay taxes on the property, right?
That house was privately owned and in the middle of foreclosure limbo, which ultimately meant we couldn’t get our hands on it (the apathy of huge banks’ holding companies is an awe-inspiring thing.) But in the attempt, we also visited Strategic Planning, Records and the Common Council member for that district’s office, where we picked up a lot of support and contacts. Some council members will get more fired up about your broken house acquisition than others, but it’s always worth dropping by their office and giving it a try.
For this current house, which is owned by the city, we’ve been down to Strategic Planning. A lot. Like we’re on a first name basis and I’m going to send them cookies once this is all over. We also started at the Demo office of course, but somehow neither of those places let the fire department know to stop cutting holes in the roof as part of their training exercises. Don’t get me wrong: the training of firefighters is a good thing. It’s just hard to keep seeing bigger, better holes getting cut in the roof of the house you’re in the process of acquiring. To get that stopped, I took a morning and dropped by Strategic Planning who pointed me to Demo who directed me to the most magical place of all time: Citizen’s Services, aka the Mayor’s 311 complaint line office. The woman at the desk worked some magic and within an hour K. had a voicemail from the FD saying they weren’t going to cut any more holes in this particular property and in two days we had a very sweet letter from them reaffirming that promise and welcoming us to the great city of Buffalo.
There are two things to remember when going to City Hall: one, these people are responsible to you, the citizen. Don’t be afraid to ask for what you need and keep bouncing from office to office until it gets done. Don’t leave the building until you’re sure progress has been made on your project. Two, these people are also just doing their job, so however frustrated you might be on a particular day, be pleasant and don’t try to ruin their day too.