Ten years ago he was a "slick slumlord" in Buffalo, an owner of close
to 100 rental units, many of them run-down.
Since then -- after spending time in a Hindu monastery and wandering the
streets in tattered clothes to meet the homeless -- Frank R. Parlato Jr.
has undergone a conversion.
The housing developer is a neighborhood activist now, with a growing
reputation stretching from Clarence to Hamburg.
His projects: creating green space near a Hamburg housing development;
establishing a wildlife preserve along Tonawanda Creek in Clarence; paying
welfare recipients to pick up litter in Buffalo; and, most recently,
establishing a corporation to continue his practice of buying Buffalo
inner-city slum houses, fixing them up and selling them to the occupants.
He even tinkered with a save-the-trees telephone hot-line.
Who is this guy, anyway?
To start with, Frank Parlato is a 1973 graduate of Sweet Home High School,
an accomplished keyboard player and a successful real estate developer.
He is a reflective man who still lives in a Hindu monastery from time to
time. He also trades his business suits for street clothes a couple of
weeks each year, roaming the streets as a homeless man in Buffalo, Chicago,
Atlanta, Washington and Los Angeles.
"My experiences as a penniless wanderer helped me develop a genuine love
for people," he said. "Before that, I was more selfish."
His monastic life also helped change him.
"My life in the monastery, which is still ongoing, has helped me become a
better Christian. I learned Christianity from living with Hindu swamis. I
learned the oneness of human life."
The one-time slumlord last week helped East Side neighborhood activists
launch a program to buy out absentee landlords, fix the properties and sell
them to the low-income renters.
It's not just talk. He's putting up his own money, which he has earned as a
real-estate developer. Neighbors Inc., a non-profit venture with no
government money, will rely on about $ 90,000 from Parlato, who claims to
have arranged for up to $ 600,000 in additional financing.
Parlato, 38, also has his developer's eye focused on the suburbs, where he
has bought housing subdivisions, reconfigured them for fewer housing units
and then created a permanent forest preserve. And he instituted a
save-the-trees hot line, seeking public donations to help towns acquire
Some public officials still are scratching their heads over the apparent
changes in Parlato.
"He seemed like a typical slick slumlord when we first encountered him
about eight to 10 years ago," Fillmore Council Member David A. Franczyk
Recently the "new" Parlato met with Franczyk, in an attempt to help
low-income occupants own the homes they rent from absentee landlords.
The Council member told Parlato that he looked like a Hindu mystic, with
his long hair, beard and glowing dark eyes.
"It was not the Frank Parlato I knew," Franczyk added. "He had a
conversion, it seemed to me."
Two other incidents help describe the Frank Parlato of today:
About two weeks ago, Parlato walked down Ruhland Avenue and made fast
friends with some 60 neighborhood kids.
"He's the first guy I've ever met who walked down the street, said 'hi' to
every kid he saw and bought ice cream for each kid," said Robert Meldrum,
an activist who has picketed slumlords and is working with Parlato on
Last month, Parlato proposed a 200-unit senior citizens' housing park in
the Town of Hamburg. When public opposition surfaced, Parlato vowed to
scrap the plan if too many neighbors objected.
"I've done a lot of developments, and I've never done one where I've
overrun the neighbors' concerns," he said at the time. "How can it be a
good, humanitarian project if you start out with all the neighbors upset?"
Parlato recently withdrew the Hamburg proposal in favor of a new site in
Local housing activists, some of them fed up with government housing
efforts, are impressed by Parlato's plans.
"I'm ready to give him a lot of leeway, and I'm not concerned about his
background, because I've seen him deliver everything he's promised so far,"
social worker and housing activist Richard D. Kern said.
Meldrum said he has spent almost every day in the last six weeks working
with Parlato on Neighbors Inc.
"I can find no way that he's going to benefit, except from his interest in
green space and humanitarian efforts," he said.
Is the man too good to be true?
Parlato said he is gratified by the question and doesn't know how to answer
But he realizes others will be watching him closely.
"I would have to be a very stupid person to engage in this activity and do
anything other than my stated objectives, which are to increase green
space, preserve our forests, clean up our creeks, bring the wealth back to
people through home ownership, bring our neighborhoods back and create a
wonderful legacy for the next generation."
Parlato claims he has evolved, changing gradually over the years. He admits
to his past mistakes. By today's standards, he said, he probably was a "borderline slumlord."
"I'm not glad I made the mistakes, but I learned from them," he said.
Following his 1973 high school graduation, Parlato said, he worked as a
keyboard player, accompanying show bands, making as much as $ 2,000 per
But he left in 1975 to join a Hindu monastery after having read a lot of
philosophy. Through the early 1980s, Parlato lived a split personality,
spending much of his time in two Midwest monasteries, even staying with a
Catholic monk who had taken a vow of silence.
Those insightful experiences, though, were sandwiched around a pretty wild
"I was on a pendulum," he said. "I'd try to live the monastic life for a
while and then come back and live just about the opposite life. I was
involved with some street gangs, but I never did anything violent. I lived
a fast life, and drugs (marijuana) and alcohol were part of it. But I grew
Gradually, the human suffering he saw began to sink in and change him.
Along the way, Parlato -- who said he earns a middle-class salary -- less
than $ 50,000 -- as a real estate developer -- became interested in the
Knowing he couldn't approach the homeless in a suit and tie to ask them how
they were doing and what they were feeling, Parlato took to the streets
"I didn't want a bird's-eye perspective," he explained. "I wanted a
What did he learn from being homeless?
"I learned that there really is no racism in our hearts," said Parlato, who
believes most people are predominantly good. "When we're absolute equals
and don't define ourselves by color, there is no racism."
City officials and fellow activists working with Parlato on the Neighbors
Inc. project seem a little leery of his uneven past, but eager to see if he
"Let's give him a chance," Franczyk said. "If he messes up, we'll be on him
like a dog on a bone."