Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Mayoral candidates Q&A: Housing

The following questions were sent to mayoral candidates in mid-August, along with a number of questions on other city issues.
Republican candidate Jim Gordon did not submit answers to these questions.
How would you address the problem of vacant properties in the city? 

Wiltshire: I’m proud that we got the Troy Land Bank off the ground this year. As the Land Bank begins to work it will be putting abandoned properties back on tax rolls.

Madden: I have spent a career working to improve the housing stock and, more importantly, improve the opportunities for Troy residents to improve their communities. The causes of vacancy, abandonment and blight are numerous and so too must be the tools we use to attack this problem. We will be aggressive in the pursuit of federal and state capital funding opportunities. We will work in closer collaboration with the non-profit sector where the capacity and ability to leverage other resources will serve to magnify our impact. We will strengthen the Land Bank’s ability to be a meaningful player and we will continue our work with the State in the development of new tools to identify problem buildings before they become vacant.

Cox: We have two types of vacant property in the city, city owned and privately owned, and each need to be addressed differently. Privately owned property owners need’s will be determined and the city will help find the resources to fulfill those needs. Whether the goal is to fix, sell or demolish, we’re going to get it done. City owned property is a little more creative. The ultimate goal is to get this property on the tax role. In their current condition, most of them have little if any marketability. My goal is to increase their marketability with as little investment as possible. My plan is to create specialized micro crews drawn from our current workforce to perform specific tasks to increase investor interest. These tasks will include water and sewer line repairs, roof repair and replacement, interior demolition and window and door replacement. The city will purchase the material and perform the work. The building will be sold with a minimum bid requirement equivalent to the funds invested. This is not about making money just increasing marketability. I will investigate the ability for the city to demolish city owned buildings using city resources. We have plenty of dump trucks to haul debris and I’m sure we can come up with a few firehoses for dust control. If we don’t own an excavator we can rent one, with an operator if necessary, and get it done.

What approach should the city take in dealing with property owners who don’t take care of their properties, particularly rental properties?

Cox: The city should take the same approach with rental property that it does with all property. I find it distressing that many people like to blame the city’s problems on one group of landowners. The city code applies to all property regardless of use or where the owner lives. Our approach should first involve finding out why the owner has a problem complying with the codes. They may be seniors that no longer have the ability to maintain their property. In this instance I will reach out to their neighbors to find someone to assist them. They may be new to our community and are having trouble finding quality affordable contractors. Whatever the problem, my goal is to assist first, violate second. I believe the majority of landowners would prefer to be in code compliance. Those that have no intention of complying will feel the full might of code enforcement.

Madden: I fully support stronger code enforcement coupled with stronger and more empowered neighborhood associations. Irresponsible landlords are a scourge on many of our neighborhoods. In my view, and based on many years of working with residents, this is a matter of great urgency and it will be a high priority of mine.

Wiltshire: We need to have codes enforced universally and systematically. The landlord registry needs to be maintained. Furthermore I advocate for rental occupancy permits where annual inspection of non-owner occupied rental properties are required. Additionally, moving our tax code to a land value tax system where properties that decay incur higher taxes could encourage owners to maintain and develop their rental properties. I will look into the feasibility of land value taxation if elected.

How would you improve code enforcement, especially concerning vacant homes? 

Wiltshire: This city needs to take steps immediately to shore up roofs and make homes weather tight while properties are disposed of by the Land Bank.

Cox: Zero tolerance is a great slogan to get you elected but it doesn’t help the community if you don’t know what it means or how to enforce it. Code enforcement in general will be improved by getting the code enforcers out on the streets. While walking the streets gathering signatures, I’ve encountered code violations that our inspectors never see sitting in city hall or driving in a car. Overgrown shrubs and trees that block off pedestrian passage on sidewalks, tree roots that have lifted sidewalks introducing severe trip hazards. Improper or nonexistent house numbers, doorbells that don’t function and the list goes on. The only way to truly understand our deficiencies is to get out there and investigate. The days of chasing anonymous complaints are over. When code gets a complaint all property within a two block radius of the complaint will be inspected, not just the property called on.

Madden: It appears to me that the Code Department needs more resources. In the short term, I would welcome the opportunity to meet with them to assess their needs and collaboratively develop the systems and procedures that can maximize their efficacy. Longer term I would like to direct more resources into our Code Enforcement efforts.

What amenities and resources are our neighborhoods lacking and how should those voids be filled? 

Cox: One of the biggest amenities we are lacking citywide is recreational activities. I have many ideas on how to enhance recreational opportunities and look forward to developing these ideas with the guidance of the community. The needs of the neighborhoods of Troy vary greatly from one block to the next. Parking is a common issue in many places in Troy but the solution will vary greatly from neighborhood to neighborhood. There is no one size fits all approach to fixing our neighborhoods and to try this method will be futile. My neighborhood would like to see more owner occupied property. Owner occupied landlords would like city provided resources that assist in tenant screening so they can secure better tenants without the cost of using a rental agency. As a hands-on Mayor I will work with every neighborhood to determine their specific needs and provide the necessary resources to fulfill those needs.

Madden: Each one of our neighborhoods is unique. The needs and resources may well vary from one neighborhood to another. I would hope that the City’s Comprehensive Plan, which is well underway, would assist us in developing a consensus for each neighborhood. We will address those needs with the careful investment of city resources coupled with citizen and neighborhood action.

Wiltshire: We need more community resource centers throughout the city. We need more grocery stores to put an end to food deserts – this is a basic issue of social justice, public health and economic efficiency. Every Trojan, everywhere, should have access to clean neighborhood parks (as a specific aside, I’d like to look into creating dog parks in Troy). Better sidewalks must be a priority. I will also enforce and expand upon the Complete Streets planning we started under my tenure on City Council, which will allow for smart, multi-modal and vibrant development.

Given the swift changes and growth in downtown Troy, and planned development of luxury apartments, do you foresee a problem with increasing rent downtown? 

Madden: The “problem” is part of what will drive new investment in other neighborhoods.

Wiltshire: Obviously, market forces will determine the price of rents to some extent – but I think our challenge here is to build up all parts of the City, so that the demand for downtown properties isn't all-consuming. I don’t see a problem in the short term, while that process is taking place. There are, and still will be, enough affordable homes and rental properties within the immediate vicinity of downtown Troy. Market-rate apartments and luxury apartments are the type of apartments that attract people who want to live in downtown Troy, with the disposable income necessary to sustain the small businesses that drive Troy’s Downtown economy.

Cox: No, I do not. What I have learned over the years is that the market sets the price. It doesn’t matter whether it involves property rental or property sales. This is an issue many home owners in the city are dealing with. They have a house that is assessed for a specific value and are being taxed on that value and yet in the current market they would be lucky to get 70% of their current assessment. Downtown property, and any form of waterfront property, rental prices and purchase prices are traditionally higher than other locations in a community. If you desire to live in one of these locations be prepared to pay more money for less space. I am confident that unless property owners are going to increase the quality of the current housing to the quality of the new housing being created rent prices shouldn’t fluctuate too much.

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