Albany addressing blight with state funding in underserved communities

Several buildings in two neighborhoods in the city of Albany are getting a makeover they desperately need.

The result of disinvestment for generations has essentially left some of the homes in those communities to be considered, "economically upside down."

13 Investigates looked into why new state funding will help flip them right side up.

In 2018, 13 Investigates first reported the housing issues in the West Hill neighborhood that’s left the community feeling neglected: decayed and deteriorating buildings littering the area, some of them had a red "X" plastered on the front of them.

Now, four years later, 13 Investigates found out there’s a new state program to eliminate the issue, giving it the necessary funding to bounce back.

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The Legacy Cities program from the state of New York will address blight, that’s putting a strain on the neighborhoods of West Hill and South End.

In Albany, the state awarded $1.9 million to renovate nine existing buildings into affordable housing.

The addresses are:

– 65 Grand Street

– 34 Second Avenue

– 40 Second Avenue

– 123 Fourth Avenue

– 324 First Street

– 325 First Street

– 445 First Street

– 372 Second Street

– 48 Judson Street

Adam Zaranko with the Albany County Land Bank said the state funding will help turn these forgotten properties right side up.

"There’s a lot of unknowns when you’re talking about rehabbing a building of that age, that has also been vacant and abandoned and left to the elements for 5, 10, 15 years, you’re essentially bringing it down to its core structure and rebuilding it," he said.

The land bank acts as the middle man (helping to bring contractors, funders, and the vacant buildings together).

Contractors approved under the terms of the state’s program will acquire all nine vacant buildings from the land bank and be responsible for rehabbing the vacant buildings, using the state grant to assist with the costs into new homes and selling them to first-time homebuyers.

The land bank will assist the contractors with marketing the new homes to qualified buyers.

However, the $1.9 million does not cover all the costs.

Zaranko said the total project costs are going to be $2.3 million, those extra funds are coming from a construction loan from a community development financial institution.

"They’re lending additional construction money to the contractors to help close the gap to fully rehab the property," he said.

For years, the South End and West Hill neighborhoods have been littered with abandoned properties.

Some of them just sit there; driving down the market. Others have a red "X," designed to alert firefighters to potential dangers.

The state funding will create a more stable building block for the community, but Zaranko said the pandemic is causing another struggle – construction costs.

"Because of the pandemic, with the construction costs and the lack of getting access to building supplies, a lot of our buyers have come to us and asked for extensions, which we typically grant if they’re working diligently on it," he said. "That’s the world we’re in right now, and we want everyone to be successful with the rehabs."

There are still a couple of steps that have to be done internally before work starts on these vacant properties in the spring.

Zaranko said the hope is by the end of this year, hopefully, fall of this year, the buildings are ready.

Feeling Neglected

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Albany is rich in history.

It’s grown from its Dutch roots into the Empire State’s capital city, but not every neighborhood evolves.

Some are left in the past and the people who live in those areas know it.

"It feels kind of like the energy is low. Like hopeless. People gave up," Kimbo Bethel said.

Bethel has lived in Albany since the age of 15. He’s seen the changes the streets, the homes have gone through in the neighborhoods of West Hill and South End. He says it’s different now.

"You go past here, and it’s not the same. We usually had nice houses. Generation after generation, it just started to look like it depreciated," Bethel said.

On nearly every other street, you can spot homes or buildings that used to be something, filled with life, now become an empty lot – abandoned, rotting, an eyesore.

The quality of life in these neighborhoods deteriorates as well.

"The problem I believe that we have when they’re vacant like this is where you get a lot of your drug activities into vacant buildings," said Larry Tune, a landlord in Albany.

It’s been this way for years.

"A lot of the vacant buildings and disinvestment that we’re struggling to undo today started back in the 1930s, through intentional means and just continued over generation to generation," Zaranko said.

The residents feel neglected. They want this change from the Legacy Cities program.

In 2016, Tune rehabbed an apartment complex at 56 Second Avenue in Albany.

He said he’s wanted companies to invest in the South End and West Hill neighborhoods for a long time, like he has. Because there is an opportunity to grow.

"I’m a resident of the city of Albany all my life. Down here, I really haven’t seen anything happening, and it needs to happen."

The Legacy Cities program will give people something to be proud of.

"It’ll uplift the people, and they would take more pride in feeling good where they live and taking care of where they live at," Bethel said.

What Changes Have Been Made?

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Since 13 Investigates first reported on this topic in 2018, the city of Albany has taken strides to get these communities back on their feet.

After contacting Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan’s office since last week, they finally got back to us 13 Investigates on Jan. 10, the same day the story aired on our newscast. 13 Investigates was able to get an interview with Sheehan.

It’s not hard to look at a property in the city of Albany and realize it’s been left to decay.

It’s the reality so many people who live in neighborhoods like West Hill and the South End have to look at each day.

In 2018, there were 1,044 vacant properties across the city. Now, there are 988.

It does not seem like a significant change in four years, but Sheehan said it actually is, "because of how vacant buildings are counted."

Sheehan said they have taken a deep dive to see what properties need extra attention.

"Those particular properties that are really problematic. Where we’re getting high numbers of code violations, where we’re seeing high call volumes."

The reason there are still lots of vacant properties is that an overwhelming majority of these properties are not tax delinquent. Taxes are being paid.

"It makes it challenging for us and the county to go after them," Sheehan said. "That’s why we have to focus on those buildings that are providing code violations, those buildings that are magnets for trouble."

As for those buildings with a big red "X" on them, there are currently 263 of them across Albany.

Back in 2018, Sheehan said there were over 400.

The city set a goal in 2018 to cut down on the number of buildings with a red "X" by at least 30%. They exceeded that goal.

"If we invest in the infrastructure, we believe that we can then attract investment in the housing, and that’s exactly what we’re seeing happening," Sheehan said.