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.”

His winning bid was $42,000. Just five years ago, $3,450 was the average price of a double in the same area of Bailey.

The auction story is the same for houses on other streets where the Bangladeshis have bought, and many properties are fetching more than what’s owed to the city, leading to the record auction surplus money for foreclosed owners.

In 2009, a slate of 826 properties sold for $4.6 million at the auction.

Five years later, 808 properties yielded $9.2 million.

This old house
But before families can move in, a big renovation project is needed. Houses bought at auction can only be viewed from the outside. Entrance is allowed when the house is purchased.

It is often a rude awakening when the new homeowner finally enters.

“The roof and the outside looked good,” said Md Raihan Uddin, who bought a $1,000 home on Sweet Avenue in 2011. “But inside there was nothing — no windows, no drywall, all the copper pipes and wiring were gone. It was just a frame.”

Many Bangladeshi men are construction laborers and contractors, so they arrive with the skills to do major home repairs. But Buffalo renovations, in many cases restorations, are typically top-to-bottom, years long, budget-busting, do-it-yourself projects. Buyers often split time between their old homes in New York City and work visits to Buffalo to fix their new homes.

Sohel Bhuiyan, no relation to Nazmal, bought a double on Purdy Street in 2011. The first year, he installed a new roof. The next summer, it was 35 new windows. New gutters, railings and stairs consumed Bhuiyan’s visits in 2013.

Last year, he was painting the inside and outside of the house.

Bhuiyan and his family finally moved in this past July after spending more than $100,000. His family’s business in Bangladesh was sold to pay for the repairs.

“There was no other way,” Bhuiyan said. “I didn’t have that kind of money.”

For Uddin, who bought the $1,000 house on Sweet Avenue, it was a similar story. It took $50,000, six months and help from friends before he could move his family from Brooklyn. He lived at the house while making the improvements, working day and night.

“There was no heat, no water, no electric — for three months,” he said. “I was crying every night. It was bad.”

Now multiply these two stories by several hundred families, who concentrate their signature extreme home makeovers on specific blocks, and neighborhoods are dramatically transformed.

Muslims and mosques
Cheap houses brought the Bangladeshis to Buffalo, but the Masjid Zakaria mosque on Sobieski Street attracted them to the Broadway-Fillmore area. The first Muslims to move within two streets of the mosque were from India and Pakistan.

For the most part, Bangladeshis here are devout Sunni Muslims.

“As Muslims, we pray five times a day,” said Nazmal Bhuiyan, “so we want to be able to walk to the mosque.”

As a result, Bangladeshi buy houses around existing mosques, and as their neighborhoods expand, homeowners pool resources and buy old buildings and create new places to pray. The number of mosques in Buffalo is growing as the migration continues.

There are 14 mosques in the area, 10 in Buffalo. Bangladeshis have added two mosques, bringing the city’s total to 12, and a third Bangladeshi mosque will open early next year.

While Muslims elsewhere in America have met with some anti-Islamic sentiment, the Bangladeshi here say they have felt no pushback from longtime residents as defunct churches and businesses are converted to mosques.

Faizan Haq, founding president of WNY Muslim, said the anti-Islamic rhetoric is at odds with American values and rights.
“The influx of Bangladeshis and other Muslims has been beneficial to the city,” he said. “Just look at the East Side and West Side — property values are up and neighborhoods have come back.”

The Buffalo Islamic Cultural Center opened on Walden Avenue this year to accommodate the burgeoning population in Lovejoy and Kensington neighborhoods. A Bangladeshi mosque/community opened on Miller Avenue, off Broadway, to serve the growing number of Bangladeshis settling in Genesee Moselle. A third mosque is planned for Fillmore, near Sycamore Street, to pick up overflow attendance from the Broadway-Fillmore mosques.

Meanwhile, Masjid Jami on Genesee Street is fueling a Schiller Park community. Masjid At-Takwa on Parker Avenue is the reason for the Bangladeshi community in Central Park Plaza area, growing so rapidly that it’s been dubbed the “New Bangladesh,” said Carmen Billups, a Realty USA salesperson.

New businesses
As they buy and repair homes and then move in, new businesses — halal markets, restaurants, a driving school, a barbershop — are popping up. Most are owned by the new arrivals.

“This is nothing, we’re just getting started,” said Atiqur Rahman, an accountant who relocated in 2005 and recently opened a hardware store in the former Francis Fronczak Library on Broadway.

Rahman, through his accounting business, is helping Bangladeshi entrepreneurs launch business ventures. In just a couple of years, 20 new businesses opened, he said.

“There are 30 more businesses planned for next year,” he said. “Give us five years, and Broadway-Fillmore and the East Side won’t be the same.”

Madina Pharmacy on Broadway, for example, opens in a couple of weeks. It will be the first upstate location of the downstate chain, owned by a group of South Asians that includes Bangladeshis.

While it’s not government-sponsored or waterfront focused, the Bangladeshi migration could jibe with Buffalo’s economic renaissance.

“We know the culture and how this country works; we’re not new to the country,” said Md Uddin, who shares the same name but is not the same man who bought the $1,000 Sweet Street home.

Uddin and his partners own a commercial building on Broadway that will house three retail businesses next year. “We know all that’s going on in Buffalo to make the city great again, and we want to be a part of that,” he said.

Crime declines
As Bangladeshis move into neighborhoods, crime declines in some of the city’s most crime-ridden areas.

While crime across the city dropped 30 percent from 2010 to 2015, it was even more dramatic in the city’s new Bangladeshi strongholds. Crime rates tumbled as much as 70 percent on those streets and neighborhoods, according to Buffalo Police Department data.

Loepere Street, where 80 homes are Bangladeshi-owned and Rahman remembers drug dealers and prostitutes working the block, criminal activity decreased by 64 percent.

“Now you hear children outside playing and see people going for walks, even into the evening, because it’s safer,” he said.
On Gibson Street, once known for a high rate of theft, burglaries dropped by 83 percent.

On Woltz Avenue, one of the most dangerous blocks in Broadway-Fillmore, crime fell by 70 percent. Bangladeshis own close to 80 homes on that street.

Longtime residents notice and appreciate the difference.

“I’ve lived here 15 years but it’s only recently I started letting friends and family visit,” said Allen Knight III, who owns a house on Woltz. “I was afraid they would get stabbed or shot.”

On Rodney Avenue in the Central Park Plaza neighborhood, where Aziz Ahmed bought a former drug house in 2011, crime dropped 68 percent. He was one of two Bangladeshis on the block, but as more bought homes, they quickly outnumbered the criminal element. There are almost 30 Bangladeshi families on the street.

“We don’t do drugs, so the drug dealers leave because they have nobody to sell to,” said Ahmed, a father of two. “We just want to live peacefully.”

Largely unnoticed
Despite these neighborhood transformations, the Bangladeshis still are under the radar from many people, including some city leaders.

David Franczyk, the Fillmore Common Council member, had a front-row seat to one of the Bangladeshi signature extreme home makeovers, but he was not aware of who was doing it.

He watched as the house across the street from his home on Fillmore Avenue, a rotted shell, was bought by a family last year.
“I thought there was no way it could be saved,” Franczyk said. “They must’ve spent months, but they fixed it. And they’re living there now. Unbelievable.”

He did not realize it was a Bangladeshi family.

“I know some Middle Easterners have been fixing up a lot of houses,” he said.

The Buffalo schools, though, are noticing more Bangladeshi youngsters in the classrooms.

Bengali is now the seventh most spoken language in the district.

“It wasn’t even in the top 20 10 years ago, which means we had a few students, if any, who spoke Bengali,” said Tamara Alsace, recently retired director of the district’s multilingual education.

From July 15 to Aug. 15 of this year, Bengali speakers were the fourth-largest group of new students enrolled through the district’s language testing center, more than speakers of the Burmese language, Karen — the No. 2 foreign language in the district — Alsace pointed out.

“That’s a pretty big influx; it shows it’s not slowing down then,” she added.

Seeking help
Despite the up-from-the-boot-straps work ethic they bring to Buffalo, some Bangladeshis do see a need for some government help, especially with jobs.

In New York City, Bangladeshi men are often cab drivers. So when they move to Buffalo, their first stop while job hunting is at local taxi companies, mainly Liberty Yellow Taxi. The taxi company on Kenmore Avenue grew from a fleet of 75 to almost 400 vehicles in the past five years. Bangladeshi drivers account for more than 91 percent of Liberty Cab’s owner/operators, said Bill Yuhnke, owner of the company.

Still, a lot of men, even after moving their families to Buffalo, can’t find jobs here and leave every couple of weeks to go to their old jobs, mostly as taxi drivers, in New York City. Dawan, the man who left Brooklyn in 2008 and now owns 10 fixer-uppers on the East Side, is among them. He and others are calling on the city for help.

“The Bangladeshi people are bringing their resources from New York City, they are even selling their property in Bangladesh, just to invest in Buffalo,” said the father of three who owns 10 properties, including a commercial building on Broadway.
“The city didn’t bring us here. We came on our own. We pay taxes and make the city better. So the least the city can do is give us a boost — give us some job training and help us find work,” he said.

Lives transformed
Bangladeshi families are finding their quality of life improving as they move to Buffalo.

On Long Island, Khondoker Karim toiled 16 hours a day as a gas station attendant and a taxi driver but had to pick up fares with his toddlers wailing in the back seat. His $2,000-a-month rent left nothing for child care.

In Buffalo, he, his wife and two children live on Vernon Place. He owns two restaurants and four rental properties in the Parkside area.

“We have a happy, relaxed life here,” Karim said. “New York City is too expensive and stressful. In New York, I wouldn’t have time to talk to you, I would be working.”

In Queens, Saleen Khan also drove a taxi, but it wasn’t enough. He and his wife roomed with a couple and their child in a two-bedroom.

In Buffalo, Khan now owns a home so big he rents out the lower unit.

“I didn’t know I could have a life this good,” he said. “It’s funny because I didn’t have the money to be a tenant in New York City, but in Buffalo I’m a landlord.”

These stories are told over and over in New York City and Bangladeshi strongholds around the country.

“They’re not just coming from New York City anymore, they’re coming from all over,” said Misba Abdin, co-founder and CEO of the Bangladeshi American Community Development and Youth Services center in Brooklyn. “Buffalo now has a large, established Bangladeshi community. They’re moving from other Bangladeshi communities in Detroit, Pennsylvania and New Jersey to be a part of the community in Buffalo. Buffalo is the place to be.”

Sheikh Rahman has lived on Rother Avenue with his wife and three kids since 2006, and they are living the Bangladeshi dream.
His house cost only $5,000 so he bought two more to rent; a four-figure rent bill no longer arrives every month.

His children landed in top-notch schools — City Honors School and Olmsted — and he and his wife are home to greet them every day after school.

“We’re so happy in Buffalo. We love Buffalo,” he said “It’s a better life. It’s easier.”

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