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Habitat for Humanity, City of Rochester tackle "zombie" homes

Tianna Manon

If Rene Hagins is lucky, she’ll be moving into her brand new house in about a month’s time.

Located on Parsells Avenue in Rochester, the home currently has just two bathtubs and a front porch. There's no insulation, only a half-done front stoop and there are random holes throughout the house where piping will later go.

But she says she’s extremely excited: “I come by and check it out all of the time,” she said, laughing. "I take pictures and everything. It's great."

Hagins is the new owner of the home, which was once a zombie property. It’s also one of the homes Flower City Habitat for Humanity is completely gutting and renovating as part of a new pilot project. Zombie properties are often abandoned or vacant homes that become a blight on a neighborhood.

CEO of Flower City Habitat for Humanity, Matt Flanagan announced the organization’s Vacant and Abandoned Homes pilot program on Thursday, standing outside the Parsells home on boards because the lawn and front stoop haven’t been finished yet. Volunteers will continue to finish the home over coming weeks, but officials say they wanted to show how much work goes into essentially giving the owner a "new" house. He says Mayor Lovely Warren reached out in 2016 to partner on the initiative.

The house was gutted completely and is being renovated to fit modern standards.
Credit Tianna Manon
The house was gutted completely and is being renovated to fit modern standards.

“We partnered with the city of Rochester at their request,” Flanagan said. “Mayor Warren brought us in and laid out an idea that we were able to embrace and that’s why we’re here today. That happened in 2016, so it took us a little bit.”

Already one home, located on Akron Street near East Main and Merchants Road, is finished. He says about $50,000 have been poured into each house and he says the homes have come from the city's land bank and M&T bank has donated one as well. 

“It’s nice to be a homeowner,” Hagins said. “My grandson will have a yard to run around in.”

And she says she’s also excited to be able to accrue real wealth. Hagins is black and homeownership for black Rochesterians is much lower than what is reported for residents of other races, according to ACT Rochester. The home is completely hers, meaning it stays in her family and if she dies, she can pass it on to her children or grandchildren. In the meantime, she can develop real value through the home.

Flanagan says there also benefits for the rest of the neighborhood and city. Zombie homes bring down nearby property values and also account for about $11 million in property value losses in the city and county. The empty homes can also attract crime, says Flanagan, even if boarded up or seemingly “inaccessible.”

“The National Bureau of Economic Research in 2014 stated that there’s a 19% increase in violent crimes around zombie homes,” he said. “So it’s really important for all of us to take these homes and turn them around while we still can.”

Volunteers do the bulk of the work and program staff say the repairs cost about 50 thousand dollars/
Credit Tianna Manon
Volunteers do the bulk of the work and program staff say the repairs cost about 50 thousand dollars/

The program comes as the city deals with homelessness, low ownership rates and high rates of zombie homes. City Council president Loretta Scott says residents often ask, with such a large homelessness and abandoned homes problem, why not just the house the homeless in them. But she says it's not that simple:

“It takes some really organized and committed and dedicated folk who know the business and who know how to mobilize both sweat equity and the other resources that are in the community.”

"Habitat has been around for a long time," she continued, "But it's only been recently that we've seen the opportunity to stretch in a different direction and I am very pleased for that." 

Scott says using current resources in innovative ways are key to fighting housing issues locally.