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March 22
, 2008


A weblog about the politics and affairs of the old and glorious City of Albany, New York, USA. Articles written and disseminated from Albany's beautiful and historic South End by Daniel Van Riper. If you wish to make a response, have anything to add or would like to make an empty threat, please contact me.

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March 22 , 2008

Declining Buildings Next To My Neighborhood

A close look at how apartment buildings in Albany
unnecessarily go vacant and die

According to a report released this week by the US Census, the Capital District has the fifth tightest apartment rental market in the country. In other words, there are only four other places where it is harder to find an apartment. This is official confirmation of something that I, as a South End landlord, have known for years.

This apartment shortage makes it easy for me to rent apartments quickly to whomever I want to rent to, which makes me happy. The downside is that the lack of apartment rental units has been an obvious and potentially fatal drag on the economic development of Albany. I mean, if the taxpayers are going to pay taxes, they have to have somewhere to live, right?

All of this obviousness is as incomprehensible as Urdu poetry to our current City of Albany administration. Nick DiLello, head of the City’s Division of Buildings and Codes has expressed the administration’s attitude toward vacant buildings this way:

The reason we have so many vacant buildings in Albany is because no one wants to live here.

Yeah, I’ve mentioned this before. What makes this statement especially jaw dropping is the way DiLello says it casually and matter of factly, like any idiot could see for themselves. He appears to truly believe this. I’ve heard him say it at least three times.

Mass Demolition On Alexander Street, Sept. 07
Mass Demolition On Alexander Street, Sept. 07

Thus, I have joined with other concerned taxpayers who are trying to repair the City’s long standing ruinous policies. Basically, we are explaining to our elected and appointed officials how to properly take care of our City. Clearly they haven’t been doing a very good job, so any demands we make are bound to be improvements.

We are slowly making progress, and we’ve managed to push the City toward adopting policies that will increase housing, and properly maintain the stock that we already have. The problem is that these boys down at City Hall honestly don’t have a clue why anybody would care about Albany.

Like my co-conspirators, I’ve been trying to figure out why perfectly good buildings go vacant and become ruined. Therefore, one Sunday morning back in February I got up and out of the house at the ridiculously early time of 9:30 to look over some buildings near my house that were up for auction.

This was not the Albany County auctions, mind you. These were the notorious Collar City Auctions. Several times a year you can see their garish auction signs appear suddenly on buildings scattered all over the South End, and just as mysteriously disappear. The signs have a way of making both tenants and neighbors nervous, they seem to represent a stage of neighborhood decline.

From The Collar City Auction Brochure, Some Of The House Numbers Are Incorrect
From The Collar City Auction Brochure, Some Of The House Numbers Are Incorrect (Click on the picture to see full size)

I had gotten up at this inhuman hour at the request of the also notorious Louise McNeilly, Delaware Avenue neighborhood activist and all round troublemaker. She wanted to hear my “expert opinion” of the buildings. Unfortunately, she had better things to do that morning, so I was on my own.

There were five buildings that Louise wanted me to look at, all owned by a fellow from Troy named Matt Ryan. The buildings are bunched together on Delaware Avenue, half a block from Catherine Street. Four of the buildings are next to each other, and one is separated by another building.

And yes, one of the buildings in question is the forever notorious 190 Delaware. This, you will recall, is where at the end of January a fellow named Underdue shot to death three people, including a 16 year old. And yes indeed, I had every intention of looking over the upstairs apartment where the murders took place.

I dragged The Wife along with me, grumbling and crabby because she hadn’t had any coffee yet. We were met in front by two guys with clipboards who worked for the auctioneers. I think there were a total of eight visitors to the open house, including me and The Wife. Not too much interest all around.

The first thing that strikes the observer of Ryan’s buildings is that they are all painted the same godawful shade of beige. Every single person who looks at these buildings gets a look of disgust on his or her face. And every single person immediately assumes the owner of the buildings is a tasteless bum, too cheap or lazy to spend five minutes picking out some decent colors.

198 Delaware Avenue: Nasty Exterior, Tolerable Interior
198 Delaware Avenue: Nasty Exterior, Tolerable Interior

I am not personally acquainted with Mr. Ryan, so for all I know he is a model human being and a candidate for sainthood. But considering the available indicators, I think not. You can’t always judge a building by its facade, but a guy who paints all of his buildings the same ugly beige is not showing much consideration for the neighborhood.

Mr. Ryan does not appear to be a model landlord. A housing advocate told me that they hear from his tenants all the time, refusal to return deposits and neglected repairs, that sort of thing. He also follows a strict policy of charging late fees for rents paid after the first of the month, which I consider a bad business practice in this neighborhood.

Another bad sign is that he is trying to sell all five buildings together. “A RARE OPPORTUNITY TO PURCHASE ALMOST AN ENTIRE CITY OF ALBANY, NY BLOCK,” says the lurid auction brochure. Now, why would that be an opportunity?

The general opinion is that Mr. Ryan is hoping to peddle the whole block for an inflated price to a hit and run developer, such as a drugstore chain. If that’s what he has in mind, then he is badly out of touch with the prevailing realities of the neighborhood. Only a ridiculously foolish buyer would gamble that he or she could demolish five buildings without a long knock down drag out fight and without spending a fortune in legal fees.

So Mr. Ryan must be in no hurry to sell, right? Wrong. Three of the buildings are completely vacant of tenants, and another is mostly vacant. Only one appears to be fully occupied. He’s paying taxes, insurance, power etc. on these buildings and not getting much in the way of income.

Or actually, he’s not paying his bills. Two of the buildings have popped up on the City of Albany’s January list of delinquent taxes. “Foreclosure pending,” it says ominously at the top of the list. Apparently, the financial contradiction of maintaining empty buildings is catching up with Mr. Ryan.

198 Delaware is a one story box. This is a commercial space with an interior in good condition, although the outside back could use some work. Someone in a hurry to get established could move in today and do the minor work quickly.

The interior of 194 is like a recurring dream I used to have. I would find myself in a building that seemed to go on and on, with tilting sagging floors, bizarre rooms leading one to another seemingly without end. I’m sure this dream has meaning which I don’t want to know. Like an unconscious desire to have a relationship with a goat, or something.

194 Delaware Avenue
194 Delaware Avenue

The first floor is a rambling commercial space in terrible condition, an old bar on one side and a torn up tin ceiling overhead. The last tenant, a used bookstore, left years ago. I think I was the very last person in the surrounding neighborhoods to find out that the owner of the bookstore was peddling dope over that bar, which served as a front counter.

I remember the last time I visited the bookstore, a few days before the big bust. I had a paranoid feeling of being watched. Gotta pay attention to that paranoia, it’s rarely wrong. I understand the cops used the owner’s security system videos as evidence of illegal transactions. I’ll bet they studied my image carefully as I poked around the books.

As for the upstairs of 194, perhaps one of the apartments was occupied. Or maybe it was empty and the door was locked. In any case, walking around up there was sort of like strolling the deck of a ship during a storm. I figured that if I ran the length of the building I’d get seasick from the dips and rolls. But really, I was kinda irrationally afraid of making too many vibrations as I walked around.

The building needs lots of structural work along with lots of cosmetic work. In short, 194 Delaware is a big mess in need of major renovation and not worth very much.

192 and 190 are a different proposition altogether. These are wonderful two family houses, built by the Marinellos. This family of Sicilian immigrants arrived in Albany in the early part of the Twentieth Century and built many of the two family homes up and down Delaware Avenue. These solid, well-built and attractive dwellings give the neighborhood a distinctive positive character.

190 And 192 Delaware Avenue
190 And 192 Delaware Avenue

Both houses are completely vacant. All four apartments need cleaning and minor repairs to be rented, but that’s all. Other than a roof leak at 192, I noticed only minor structural problems. 192 had much of it’s carved woodwork intact, whereas the woodwork in 190 was covered with paint. If I owned 190 I’d grab my electric heat gun and not come out until all the woodwork was clean.

Of course, the upstairs of 190 was occupied by tenants until the shootings a month earlier. I went up the back stairway and carefully opened the door, which had a smashed window. I believe that crusty doorknob was the only thing that I touched in the apartment with my hands, repulsion or superstition I guess.

The apartment was full of furniture and other necessities. It looked like someone had grabbed clothes and appliances and made a hasty exit. Something tells me they won’t be back for the rest of their stuff.

There was blood dried black on the dining room floor. Being a sick sucker, I snapped a couple of photos. No, I won’t make you look at them.

The Wife was not enjoying this outing very much. She crabbed at the two guys with the clipboards, refused to go into 190 at all, and made all kinds of distressed noises about the icy sidewalk in front of the buildings, which neither Mr. Ryan nor the auction house saw fit to salt. The only thing that kept her reasonable was the promise of brunch after the ordeal.

182 appeared to be the only building of this bunch that was producing income. I couldn’t get into any of the apartments, but the common areas looked awful. Still, this was mostly heavy cosmetic work, tearing out the crappy paneling and fixing the walls. From what I could see the building probably needed structural work.

182 Delaware Avenue
182 Delaware Avenue

What’s going on here? We’ve got five buildings on one of the most desirable corridors in the City, three of which are in excellent shape. In the middle of an apartment shortage, we have living units left to rot. Commercial units are always dicier to rent, but surely two storefront spaces along Delaware Avenue could be rented for a discount, at least.

A good portion of the blame falls on Mr. Ryan, of course. I have to admit that I am reluctant to condemn him out of hand. After all I could be him. If, for example, I became disabled, I could no longer repair toilets and replace electric outlets in my apartments, nor could I afford to hire someone to do so regularly. Eventually my buildings would revert to the way they were when I bought them, or worse.

Perhaps Mr. Ryan is one of those guys who likes to wheel and deal, intoxicated with buying and selling property but bored by the day to day maintenance. (This seems to be mostly a guy thing.) Or maybe he is too distracted by his business ventures across the river in Troy to show any interest in his Albany buildings, or concern for the neighbors.

But ultimately it is mostly the fault of the City of Albany’s government that these buildings are heading toward abandonment. Where is enforcement of minimal standards for rental living spaces? Has code enforcement been suspended for the last fifty years?

The answer to that last question is, yes. Until a few years ago, code enforcement was used by the City administration primarily as a tool of political harassment. How do I know that? Let’s just say that I’ve been on the receiving end for the last twenty years, and my absentee landlord neighbors have not been. We’ll leave it at that.

Happily, this is changing. Thanks to steady pressure by the Council of Albany Neighborhood Associations (CANA) the City administration is moving toward effective and equitable code enforcement. The City has a lot of catching up to do, but we are starting to see results from the changes in policy.

What about incentives to encourage landlords to improve their properties? Cash for demolitions has always been available in the City budgets. But the administration of Mayor Jennings has provided little or nothing to prevent buildings from decaying to the point of demolition.

Doorway Of 190 Delaware In February
Doorway Of 190 Delaware In February

One is forced to conclude that wholesale demolition of downtown Albany residential buildings has always been the primary aim of the Jennings administration.

But right now, all we can do is hope that Matt Ryan develops some common sense and sells his buildings separately to people who give a damn before they get much worse. Such people are around, I’ve recently noticed them buying property in my neighborhood.

The alternative scenario, which happens all too often, is that Mr. Ryan will continue to neglect his Delaware Avenue properties until they are truly derelict. Then Jerry Jennings can fulfill his fondest wish and have them torn down.

After the inspection, I took The Wife up to Magnolia’s on Madison Avenue for brunch. I’m happy to report that she was much more pleasant for the rest of the day.

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Posted by: alfrednewman
Posted on:
Ryan had this group up for sale for a some where a little over a million last year. He was targeting NYC investors. If he has a high vacancy rate then they are more attractive to someone coming up here. From one perspective its better to buy empty but serviceable buildings.

Its the city and school taxes and water rates that are killing Albany. High taxes = less money available for maintenance and repairs.

Posted by: hailstorm
Posted on:
it seems to me as though we have a lot of people in this city willing and/or able to rent, but very few in a position to buy. if we did, then these buildings would be grabbed up by now. i wish i had the money to put down myself, because i'd buy them.

call me greedy, but i'd love to cash in on the rental market here. it seems like it could be quite a lucrative venture (emphasis on the "could be"). but apparently not as lucrative as sitting on buildings and letting them rot.

and yes, i have to agree with newman, that it's much easier to sell "empty" rental buildings than those that are filled with less-than-desirable tenants, who have signed leases that the new owner is legally obligated to honor. it puts the dirty work of removing them in your hands, which is an awful headache.

Posted by: Tom Monjeau
Posted on:

The weird sort of disconnect to me is that 10 years ago, Delaware Ave. and side street 2 families could have been bought for maybe 40-60K, 6-8 years ago 80-110K, and now they are selling for maybe 150-220K. The one family prices have also risen substantially in the last 4-5 years. Hmmm, what can possibly be going on here?

My observation from living here for 24 years, is that there are acouple of reason. Part of it is that some have been priced out of the suburbs. And then, some of us who grew up in the burbs, moved to and prefer living in the city. For some of us, perhaps, the "American Dream" is more like living and raising our kids in, and being an active member of an interesting and diverse community. An endless expanse of green ChemLawns, 2 car garages and SUV's, half hour commutes to work (in the city most likely) the conspicuous consumption that runs rampant... What's not to like???

What is frustrating is that an answer could be simple idea such as .

Lets say an organization, such as the City of Albany or a non profit, got their hands on a bunch-couple-few of the most salvageable and habitable vacant buildings say on one block.
Then say, the various trade unions donated some workers to mentor some young men and women in the various trades who were hired from the immediate neighborhood to rehab these buildings.
If this were to happen, I could envision a significant improvement on a block and that some of these young men and women becoming interested in a trade at a time when the unions are in dire need of members and especially minority members, (union scale pay ain't bad and sure beats retail).
I also think that having a hand in transforming a block could also help in community building and "ownership" of the neighborhood.

What to do with the buildings when done? How about something like Habitat for Hum does? And speaking of HH, I have never heard of them doing rehabs, only infill. Does anyone know if this is some rule or something, or just the way they have done things so far. I wonder if this could change?

So, while Nick D. may be right about "no-one wanting to live here anymore" at this particular moment, the point is that the City of Albany has allowed this situation to happen in some neighborhoods, and in some ways encouraged it. The plan cannot be to tear it all down, but to build it back up, and this will start with public safety, property ownership and inviting neighborhoods.

Posted by: AlfredMoisiu
Posted on:
Things move in cycles, up and down... look at NYC for a more noticeable example of how neighborhoods, thrive, decline and are reborn.

Neighborhoods in Albany are fragile because they are so small. Solid ethnic neighborhoods like the Italian area around Delaware and the German area around Central Avenue drift away as people move on, die or seek other opportunity. When those neighborhoods collapse, they're replaced by blight, and eventually the prices get so cheap that new people come in, demolish the shitty buildings, and start afresh.

The solution isn't to flush more taxpayer dollars down the toilet -- that's how we got here in the first place and is slowing progress.

The government f---ed up the whole thing by subsidizing artificially high rents and making it profitable for landlords to profit on low-density buildings with little or no capitalization. That's why some half-literate neanderthal can run highly profitable property management companies in small cities -- if you're a scumbag, you can't lose.

Subsidized rents for low quality apartments in Albany are within $1000/year of high-quality apartment complexes in Guilderland and Colonie. In a suburban development, that extra money is going towards staff, maintenance, landscaping, etc.

Posted by: AlfredMoisiu
Posted on:
@Tom Monjeau

The price increases are driven by two factors:

- Inflation (80k in 1997 is about 105k in 2007)
- Cheap money. Interest rates were much higher 10 years ago, and the down payment requirements for two families or subprime where much more strict.

Right now you can get a 30-year conventional mortgage from SEFCU for 5.8% -- that's free money in an economy where milk has nearly doubled in price over the last 18 months.

So I can buy a two family flat for say $150k, put $10k into it and pay about $1000/mo in mortage, plus about $5000 for taxes and insurance. I can then rent two 2BR apartments for $1800-2000/mo and make a 25-30% gross margin.

Cheap money + easy access to capital + high rents = higher investment property prices.

The unions make their money from bullshit government projects -- nobody is interested in hiring bitchy Americans for residential construction when you can ship in some pliant eastern europeans or mexicans. Less union members = higher scale for the convention center, libraries, state buildings, etc.

Posted by: Roger Green
Posted on:
Off topic, I'm glad you now have permalinks on your current articles. I used to have to wait until they were in the prior list to link to them.

Posted by: Tracey Brooks is a Visonary, not
Posted on:
I think were missing some important factors that need to be addressed here in order to get people to buy these properties and to attract people to Albany. The most important thing is jobs. I am 27 years old and wanted to stay in Albany more then anything. Most of my friends who were all from NYC also wanted to stay in Albany. Problem was that there weren't enough jobs in the area, and the ones that were here were all in Clifton Park and Colonie. Those who stayed obviously opted for suburban life since it was convient.

Why can't Albany take a cue from another city that is very similar, my home now, Cambridge Mass. Though, I think Albany could learn some things that shouldn't be done. Albany is has the opportunity infront of itself right now to utilize the growth of SUNY Albany. I have read projections that show that due to the cost of private colleges, many students will be choosing schools like UAlbany. Also, Albany is the center of an emerging industry Nanotech and due to the intellectual capital and proximity to NYC, it can also be a player in Biotech and other healthcare related fields.

Albany needs to tap into this now by lowering taxes to attract companies to invest in the city itself. It has space for labs such as in the old warehouse district in North Albany, and the potential redevelopment of the Harriman Plaza. Also, I think Albany could benefit from the issues facing large cities like NY and Boston. Sky high office rentals, cost of living, commutes, and conjestion are making people want to leave large cities in droves.

Albany is a local commute from these major economic centers, but it benefits due to the lower cost of living and room to build up. I envision the state working to keep companies from NYC by attracting them to Albany. I can picture the area where Jennings wants the convention center turned into a office/retail/residential development that will transform the city. Doing so will increase the stock of office and residential space keeping the cost down.

I also forsee Albany being connected to NYC via Metronorth which will make it all the more attractable. I agree that its more needs to be done with the absentee landlords and the lack of vision with the powers that be. However, we need to capitalize on the problems in larger cities and Albany's resources to make it an ideal place for jobs. If the jobs come, so will people. If people come, we will see economic development and revitalization.

Posted by: Joeft
Posted on:
thats for sure, bro

Posted by: classicmale91
Posted on:
Well, if you want home improvement advice and want to reduce the percentage of people living in poverty at the same time, simply give "ALL" of the money appropriated for government giveaways like rental housing funds (section 8), food stamps and everything else to the suburbs and the more rural areas. They would love the money and the poor would get to live in places they should be allowed to live. While we're at it, lets move the social services departments and not-for-profits, as well as the family courts to other towns within the County. The poor in those towns deserve the services and so do the people who might not otherwise be able to move there.

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