If anyone knows Buffalo’s real estate market, it’s East Side native Keith Barnes, who has been helping residents find their dream homes for more than three decades.
He’s part of a small demographic: 7.5 percent. That’s the portion of America’s 1.2 million real estate brokers and sales agents who are Black, according to Census estimates.
The job gives Barnes, 53, whose Barnes Real Estate Group is located off Genesee Street, a firsthand look at how Buffalo’s housing market has changed, why its Black homeownership rate has stagnated, and what can be done.
“Coming from the neighborhood, how can I make it better in the position that I have? How can I increase homeownership?” Barnes said.
Barnes watched over the years as city-sponsored homeownership programs have come and gone. He’s witnessed home prices escalate when paychecks of African-Americans merely crept up. He’s seen some of his clients struggle to negotiate a home-buying process that can feel uninviting to those who never before bought a home — or even lived in one owned by their family.
Barnes recently walked with an Investigative Post reporter around Sycamore Village, an upscale, subsidized housing development on the city’s East Side. He discussed why Buffalo’s Black homeownership rate has stalled — only one in three Black households in the city own the house they live in — and suggested ways to increase ownership.
His own experience, he said, confirms Census and federal bank data that show Black homeowners favoring the suburbs over the city. In the past three years, banks approved 979 home loans for Black borrowers in the suburbs compared to 695 in Buffalo.
“A lot of people feel that the suburban market offers better school systems than the city market does,” Barnes said.
He maintains that a number of schools in the city compare favorably to the suburbs.
Barnes also said homes in minority neighborhoods like the Fruit Belt and Hamlin Park are being bought up by wealthy investors, cutting into the city’s housing inventory.
“In past years, that neighborhood has declined in value somewhat and that allowed investors to come in,” he said of the Fruit Belt. “And that’s what we’re seeing in a lot of the traditional Black neighborhoods.”
Buffalo’s housing market can’t keep up with the demand, the realtor said, adding he believes the city could benefit from reinstating programs like the one that created Sycamore Village in 2010.
“To combat the overall problem, we have to increase the supply, and that’s where the city can step in and restart their program for affordable housing and new construction, and that would really help,” Barnes said.
Sycamore Village was part of a decades-long effort by Buffalo to expand homeownership, much of it on the city’s East Side.
Over 25 years, starting in the 1980s, the city — sometimes working with developers — built more than 1,500 subsidized houses. They’re evident today on more than 100 streets, from William and East Ferry to Broadway, Sycamore and Michigan.
In its infancy, the program offered upwards of $20,000 in federal subsidies to low-to-moderate-income homeowners. But over time, as housing prices increased, larger subsidies — as high as $100,000 or more per house — were offered to make homes affordable. Eventually, federal funds dried up and the city program dissolved.
Sycamore Village was designed as a mixed-income neighborhood, with some houses built without any federal subsidies.
“The main goal was to combine both affordable housing and market-rate housing in one development, and hopefully that would spur future development,” said Barnes, who served as realtor for the project.
While the project did result in 16 homes, eight others never left the planning board.
In recent years, Buffalo has offered less costly home-buying incentives, such as down payment assistance up to $10,000 to qualifying first-time homebuyers.
But heftier subsidies may be making a comeback. A state panel in early November agreed to help finance new owner-occupied housing proposed for one East Side street.
Under the plan, a dozen single-family homes would be built on vacant city-owned lots on Adams Street between Sycamore and Genesee streets. State subsidies would ensure the houses are affordable to low-and-moderate income families, according to New York Division of Housing and Community Renewal documents.
If the project succeeds, it could be a pilot for other neighborhoods where the city owns vacant lots, Buffalo officials have said.
Donivin Mclean, 28, of Keller Williams Realty in Williamsville, is among those ushering in the new generation of Black realtors. Mclean has been in the industry for about five years.
He said he’s also noticed more Black residents moving to neighboring towns and villages. However, he attributes the shift largely to the deterioration of Buffalo neighborhoods because of disinvestment and renter culture.
“A lot of renters do not respect their homes,” Mclean said.
When people decide to buy a house, he said, they choose areas where they perceive properties are better maintained. Many Buffalo houses aren’t on par with similarly priced properties in the suburbs, he said.
“The piping’s old, the electricity’s outdated, the roof is not good, so you’ve got to put that in perspective,” he said.
Like Barnes, Mclean has noticed properties in predominantly Black neighborhoods being acquired by investors, as well as members of immigrant communities. He said the sales aren’t all bad and that some houses in neglected neighborhoods are fetching higher prices than the properties are worth.
While crime has decreased in Buffalo in recent years, it remains concentrated in pockets of the East Side, and both realtors said it too remains a concern for some homebuyers.
The realtors point out they both live in the city. Safety was a factor when looking for a home for his own family, and they chose Buffalo, Mclean said.
Both Barnes and Mclean said educating prospective buyers is the key to increasing homeownership among Blacks.
Much of Mclean’s focus is on holding seminars and workshops in high schools.
“Nobody is teaching us this inside of a school. Public education doesn’t teach you a thing about ownership at all,” he said.
Barnes’ realty group is in the process of planning seminars, not only for homebuyers, but for renters, as well.
“Even though our focus is on homeownership, we have to start by making it better for everyone, whether you’re renting or owning, and education is key,” Barnes said.
It’s a responsibility, he said, that goes beyond the real estate industry.
“The realtors can definitely do a better job, and at the same time, the city or whatever agency has funding available, they could do a better job of working with realtors. So it pretty much goes both ways,” he said.