Transforming Buffalo, One Block At A Time

By Emma Sapong The Buffalo News, N.Y.

Much of Broadway-Fillmore might seem like the poster child for blighted Rust Belt cities: criminals roaming the streets, boarded-up houses with plywood windows and empty storefronts separated by vacant lots. Urban decay replays block after block.

But take a closer look and walk around Woltz, Loepere and Gibson streets, and you will find rehabbed houses, replete with fresh coats of paint, new siding and gable roofs. Many empty parcels are fenced-in fruit and vegetable gardens. Prostitutes and drug dealers no longer walk these streets. Instead, seniors relax on their porches, watching as kids whiz by on bikes and families stroll to nearby groceries, a hardware store and accountant's office.

Something dramatic has quietly happened in Broadway-Fillmore, largely unnoticed, and it's spreading to Genesee Moselle, Fillmore-Leroy, Kensington, and other neglected neighborhoods.

New families are plunking down their life savings to buy and renovate hundreds of dilapidated properties, restoring them to the city's tax rolls.

It's a transformation spearheaded by Buffalo's newest immigrant group, the Bangladeshis. These families are coming here in droves, from New York City, where many first arrived, perhaps a generation ago, from their South Asian homeland.

The migration to Buffalo began as a trickle a decade ago, but in the past three years or so, it's become a torrent.

There are no reliable numbers tracking how many Bangladeshis have settled in Buffalo. The Census Bureau's latest estimate is 316, but the actual count is significantly higher. Liberty Yellow Taxi alone has more than 367 Bangladeshi drivers. One community leader estimates that "at least 1,000 to 1,500" Bangladeshi families are living in the city.

Whatever the precise number, the new arrivals have made a dramatic impact on several East Side neighborhoods. Property values are rising. The number of owner-occupied homes is up. Crime is down significantly. Retail stores are opening. The inner-city real estate market is thriving. Demolitions are waning.

"For the first time in my career, I'm seeing more owner-occupied purchases versus investment properties," said Matt Lepovich, a licensed real estate salesperson with Century 21 Gold Standard. "These are multigenerational families who want to live in these homes, who want to live on the East Side, so properties are maintained. It's a beautiful thing."

The Bangladeshis are lured here by the cheap prices for houses.

"What might be viewed as junk property might be a palace to them because they're coming from New York City, where rent is sky-high and home ownership is so expensive that they can see the potential in a house, and they're willing to do the work," said Josephine Modeste-Nieves, of Modeste Real Estate, which caters to refugee and immigrant families in Buffalo.

Even vacant lots appeal to Bangladeshis. They come from an agrarian culture and covet sprawling yards for their outsized gardens.

No government agency selected Buffalo as their new home. The Bangladeshis made the choice. That means that, unlike refugees, they get no government assistance to resettle here. They pool their own resources. Friends and relatives chip in, and sometimes properties in New York are sold while others reach back to their native Bangladesh for the money for their new life in Buffalo.

"They're coming from a very different experience," Modeste-Nieves said, "so they have a very different perspective."

So different that some of Buffalo's most distressed neighborhoods have become the Bangladeshis' Promised Land.

"There's a better life and home ownership in Buffalo for the Bengali people," said Meraz Dawan, who left Brooklyn in 2008 and now owns 10 renovated fixer-uppers on the East Side. "It's a life many couldn't have in New York City."

New York City Bangladesh lies in the Ganges Delta -- the world's largest river delta -- bordered by the Bay of Bengal, India and Burma. The largely Muslim nation is densely populated, impoverished and susceptible to devastating floods. Bangladeshis began emigrating to the United States en masse in the 1990s through a federal program commonly known as the green card lottery. It issues 50,000 green cards a year through the lottery system to individuals in countries with low rates of immigration. Bangladeshi-Americans now number around 280,000, and New York City is home to the country's largest population, 70,000.

But Big Apple living is expensive, and for Bangladeshis it's especially crushing because one in three live in poverty, according to the New York City-based Asian American Federation 2013 Census Data. A two-bedroom apartment can be home to several Bangladeshi families. Fathers often are absent, working long hours as taxi drivers or construction laborers, sometimes both.

"The high costs of living and housing in New York City probably make Buffalo seem attractive by comparison," said Howard Shih, research and policy director at the federation.

Even for Bangladeshis above the poverty line, life is a struggle.

"I had to work two jobs, day and night, to be able to pay my mortgage," said Mojib Rahaman, who sold two houses he owned in Queens and moved with his wife and their five children to Buffalo in 2013. "It was very stressful, and there was never time to spend with my family."

Through word of mouth, and especially in the past couple of years, Buffalo has become the alternative to New York City, said Nuran Nabi, a New York City-area community leader.

"Because life is so tough in New York, Bangladeshis are always looking to move wherever they'll be able to succeed," Nabi said. "They'll move wherever there are opportunities. And Buffalo has become that place."

The first arrivals Nazmal Bhuiyan, a taxi driver from the Bronx, was one of the first to arrive.

"I had never heard of this place, Buffalo," the father of two said. "I thought it was the country area, with a lot of trees and the houses far, far apart."

He learned of the city a decade ago, when a friend told him about its tax foreclosure auction, where houses were selling for as little as $1,000.

Bhuiyan set foot in Buffalo the next day. And at the auction, he snagged a duplex on Woltz Avenue for $4,500.

"But the neighborhood was bad; it looked empty," he recalled of his first sight of Broadway-Fillmore, "and all the houses were broken."

That included the duplex he bought.

Still, "I couldn't believe it," he continued. "I was so happy, it was like a dream come true. I went back to New York, excited and started telling everybody -- my friends, my family -- about Buffalo."

The news of a city where a house -- granted, a fixer upper -- costs $5,000 and not $500,000 sparked an exodus. Over the next several years, many more families arrived.

Bhuiyan became a shepherd for his countrymen, leading them to homeownership. He returned to New York City each October, rounding up dozens of families for the auction, and led them on a caravan along the Thruway.

"My house would be packed with 20, 30 people, sleeping everywhere," he said.

More than 200 families settled in Buffalo through Bhuiyan's efforts alone, he said.

Many more are relocating as the Bangladeshis' house-buying binge continues, bringing business to local real estate agents. The aggressive among them are even knocking on doors with cash offers to East Side property owners.

But the city foreclosure auction remains a much anticipated house-hunting destination.

"Look around, the Bengalis are many," said Niaz Makdum, a Bengali-language newspaper editor, as he took in the record crowd that converged at the Buffalo Niagara Convention Center on Oct. 27 for the first day of the 2015 auction. "There are hundreds of Bengalis here from New York City who are looking for a home and better life in Buffalo."

So many Bangladeshis turn out for the annual event that prices for even the most derelict of houses have skyrocketed as they outbid each other.

At the auction, more than 20 bidder paddles went up for one duplex on Bailey Avenue. Eventually, the winner emerged. "Yes!" Saikh Jafar shrieked, leaping in jubilation. "I'm happy because it's a good house and a good deal."

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