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City looking for builder for second round of Buy the Block

22 Thomas St. is one of the first houses built for Buy the Block. It is one of six that are currently occupied.
Gino Fanelli
22 Thomas St. is one of the first houses built for Buy the Block. It is one of six that are currently occupied.

A handful of new houses pepper Rochester’s Upper Falls neighborhood, each one built to the city’s specifications and occupied by low-income people who might otherwise struggle to become homeowners.

This is the Buy the Block program, a city initiative to build more equity and stability in low-income city neighborhoods.

The concept is simple: build new homes on city land and sell them to people who are making at most 80 percent of the area median income — for a family of four, that would be $74,750. Buyers, who are selected through a city-run lottery, are required to pay $1,500 out of pocket to close on a house and they must commit to staying in the house for 15 years or to sell it to other income-qualified buyers should they choose to move.

The first round focused on Upper Falls. Now, the city is seeking a contractor to build 30 more houses on the city’s west side near Genesee Street. A request for proposals is open until Oct. 20.

Carol Wheeler, the city’s housing manager, sees Buy the Block as a small, but important tool for addressing Rochester’s critical housing issues. She stresses that the purpose of Buy the Block is to stabilize neighborhoods and decrease residents’ reliance on rental properties in favor of homeownership.

“When people are staying in place, the neighborhoods become a bit more stable,” Wheeler said. “People are not having to move, it’s not a lot of transiency. People get to know their neighbors and feel really comfortable in that neighborhood.”

Mayor Lovely Warren’s administration launched the Buy the Block program is to address disparities of formerly redlined city neighborhoods by performing what the city refers to as “greenlining.” The program is funded in part by a $13.1 million infusion from the federal 2021 American Rescue Plan Act.

The first round of Buy the Block homes included 24 properties. Six of them are currently occupied, 10 are under construction, and the city expects to break ground on the remaining eight next year,

Rochester has 51,917 residential structures, according to data from the city. Of those, 57% — 29,576 buildings — are owner-occupied. For single-family homes, like the ones in Buy the Block, the rate of owner occupancy is 66%.

Those numbers are largely in line with national trends. According to an August report from the U.S. Census Bureau, 59% of homes nationwide were owner-occupied.

However, roughly 60% of the city’s residents live in rental units, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. Rental prices have soared in Rochester over recent years. In 2023, the Department of Housing and Urban Development places fair market rent for a one-bedroom apartment at $950. In 2020, that number was $775, an increase of 23%.

Gino Fanelli covers City Hall. He joined the staff as a reporter in 2019 by way of the Rochester Business Journal, and formerly served as a watchdog reporter for Gannett in Maryland and a stringer for the Associated Press.