Making Democracy Work

Housing/Municipal Housing Authority Tenant Committee Report

Housing

Municipal Housing Authority Elections

A heartfelt thank you goes to League members who helped with the recent Schenectady Municipal Housing Authority (SMHA) Tenants' Council Election held at the Ten Eyck building in Schenectady. Those who participated during the eight hours when tenants voted, assuring a proper election and outcome, were: Dick Shave, Elmer Bertsch, Robbie Roessle, Eleanor Aronstein, Tara Peterson, Pat Lambert, Carol Furman, and Cindy Weissend.

League participation allowed the SMHA to document with a trusted outside source that the election was carried out properly. This is an example of grassroots democracy in action. The League of Women Voters of Schenectady County received $300 for its work.

Schenectady Sees New Direction to Improve Housing Efforts

Schenectady has developed a strategic plan to make resources go farther in meeting housing needs in the City, Jaclyn Mancini, Schenectady Director of Development, told the League of Women Voters of Schenectady County in a program May 6th at the Schenectady County Public Library.

Ms. Mancini, in charge of Schenectady's management and administration of housing, community development, neighborhood redevelopment and planning, said housing plans are "interactive" in a dozen places and aim to bring together efforts on the municipal, non-profit, and volunteer organization fronts. She cited as an example that the City's Land Bank effort would work with non-profits such as Habitat for Humanity and Better Neighborhoods Inc. when the City demolishes a substandard building and replaces it with a new dwelling. A demolished site also could result in "pocket parks" or green spaces. The City has designated four strategic corridors for housing renewal and development: Eastern Parkway; Broadway; North Side, and Mont Pleasant.

One of the audience expressed skepticism about the adequacy of planning for affordable housing. Richard Russo, Chair of the Land Bank, said Schenectady has an overstock of housing but acknowledged that housing that met standards was not necessarily available. The Municipal Housing Authority apartments and the Section 8 housing all have long waiting lists and little turnover. Schenectady has a policy that requires vetting of prospective buyers of City foreclosed houses, often two-family homes, because it does not want absentee or slum landlords with property that does not meet codes.

Individuals in the audience who deal with housing issues declared that Schenectady is seeing a "turnaround" in housing and that more people are moving in than moving out of the City.

Some discussion focused on landowners and banks that did not maintain property and the City's inability for years to force property maintenance. Ms. Mancini said some of the banks are beginning to either divest themselves of the property, for example paying the City to acquire a property, or doing more on maintenance. Part of the impetus, she said, is legislation nicknamed the "Zombie Bill" that would force banks after 90 days of bankruptcy or abandonment to move the property to a "for sale environment" or suffer penalties. The legislation that speakers urged the League to support is the Abandoned Property Neighborhood Relief Act.

Ms. Mancini described the H.O.M.E.S. "umbrella" program the City espouses as including: open market sales working with realtors and not-for-profit banks; Housing and Urban Development (HUD) programs that also include federal block grant funding; first time homebuyer assistance programs (that include "gap" financing); redevelopment or demolition of distressed/abandoned buildings; Land Bank; and foreclosures and sale of City property. Some $1 million of property value has been recently put back on the tax rolls, according to Ms. Mancini.

Joan Elliott

Abandoned Property Neighborhood Relief Act

Current status: Senate SO4781: in Judiciary Committee
Assembly AO6932: in Housing, Construction and Community Development Committee

Bill would:

Make lenders and banks responsible for delinquent properties soon after they are abandoned, rather than at the end of a lengthy foreclosure.
Require lenders to pay for upkeep.

Support: 16 mayors including those of Schenectady, Albany, and Amsterdam

Housing Solutions Require Long Term Outlook

Schenectady Mayor Gary McCarthy and housing experts predicted that a lengthy and multifaceted program will be needed to provide long term solutions to housing problems in the City of Schenectady. They talked to the League of Women Voters of Schenectady County on March 7 at the Niskayuna Branch Library.

Speaking to the League in an active interchange with the audience were: Mayor McCarthy, Ahmad Yusufi, Fair Housing Program Coordinator; Joseph Riedhammer, Key Bank Mortgage Loan Officer; and Mary DʼAlessandro- Gilmore, Associate Broker, Prudential Realty. Ellie Pepper, Assistant Director for Better Neighborhoods, Inc (BNI) was in the audience and also participated.

The days of handling housing in a public relations manner are over and, instead will involve a systematic review of the 20,000 parcels of property in Schenectady, the Mayor said. One of the impediments to a review that the city administration faced was that property information was in a manual rather than an electronic record system. The "troubled" properties are now receiving attention for priority code enforcement.

Schenectady officials were not shy in stating they disapproved of absentee landlords who had a negative influence on their property. Those homeowners without the wherewithal to keep up properties should not be landlords, they said. Any drug, criminal, or "get rich quickly schemer" is unwelcome in the city, according to the mayor.

Mr. Riedhammer described a "Key to the City" program that allows homeowners to get a mortgage with 100 per cent of value, a 30-year fixed rate, $500 down, and low closing costs. These mortgages are aimed at credit- qualified individuals who will occupy the property. They must also undergo financial education.

Schenectady had a low rate of foreclosures in the housing crisis because many of the houses that were foreclosed on were more costly houses, Mr. Yusufi said. Foreclosures can take six months to two years to be resolved.

Ms. DʼAlessandro-Gilmore provided the audience with a comparison of active home listings by neighborhoods in Schenectady, Scotia, Glenville, Albany, North Colonie, and Burnt Hills. The lowest purchase price was in Schenectady as were the highest taxes but when compared with other costs, the yearly cost of home ownership was lowest in Schenectady. In the real estate effort to highlight the value of mid-income houses in Schenectady in late February, seven sales contracts were written on homes. "Schenectady is a jewel" and this has to be conveyed "word of mouth", Ms. DʼAlessandro-Gilmore and Mr. Riedhammer agreed.

The Community Land Trust and efforts to collaborate with other counties were described. Both Ms. Pepper and Mr. Yusufi described counseling programs available for homeowners and potential homeowners.

The League will determine what the follow up to this housing program will be. Maxine Borom, Marion Porterfield, and Sonia Rubenstein have agreed to be on a committee to explore next steps in housing issues.