A Letter To Governor Paterson

February 9, 2010

The blogger begs for money for the South End and partially solves the State budget crisis

Believe it or not, for the past few years I’ve belonged to the board of directors of a corporation. I’m quite pleased about this, I never thought a working class man like myself would ever be allowed near the upper echelons of corporate control. Such positions, I’ve always been told, are reserved for elite members of the master race, a category which most decidedly does not include me.

Okay, we’re not talking about Goldman Sachs or Monsanto or China here, we’re talking about our venerable neighborhood nonprofit South End Improvement Corporation (SEIC.) Our primary job is to step in as the agency of last resort for owned and occupied South End houses that are in urgent need of repair. Thus, by repairing the buildings and keeping them livable, we prevent long time homeowners from losing their homes and becoming homeless.

38 Catherine St., Note The Typically Neglected South End Sidewalk 38 Catherine St., Note The Typically Neglected South End Sidewalk

To me, keeping both the buildings and their inhabitants alive and healthy is the most important thing that the South End needs right now. The City of Albany has long pursued a policy of applied neglect to the South End, with an ultimate goal of vacating our neighborhoods and selling off the land to suburban “developers.” So don’t worry, folks. I may be revealed as a hypocritical corporate cog by beonging to a corporate board of directors, but I’m still acting contrary to long-standing public policy.

Our organization is not exactly raking in the cash, our funding has always been rather precarious. For instance, the month that I joined the board of SEIC I couldn’t help but notice, while standing in the office at 38 Catherine Street, I could barely see my hand in front of face… in the middle of the day. So immediately I was able to affect a positive boost to productivity of the working environment by buying a bag of light bulbs, an essential item for which funding was not available at that time.

Truth to tell, when I was invited to join the board of SEIC the first thought that popped into my mind was the old Groucho Marx line, “I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member.” I quickly learned that SEIC did not particularly need me. It is a humble honor for me to be able to contribute to this organization’s work in some small way.

The Director of SEIC is Sandra Obiedo, hired by the board. I’ve sat at monthly board meetings and watched with wonder and admiration as Sandra has not only held together the funding for our programs, she has demonstrated an ability to anticipate problems and a knack for finding sources of money. She has actually expanded our programs to help more people and preserve more buildings.

Sandra Obiedo Sandra Obiedo

Sandra came to SEIC after many years working in the office of Albany County Comptroller Mike Connors. Now, Mr. Conners’ occasional stabs at playing politics have left an unpleasant aftertaste in some mouths. I know one local Democratic Party activist who persistently and vehemently spits his name and calls him “crazy.”

But even Mr. Conners’ detractors admit that the Comptroller runs a tight competent ship and does his job very well. His staff reflects his priorities, I’m sure he was sorry to lose Sandra as an employee. I’m still waiting for an opportunity to thank him for sending us a top notch director.

Around the time Ms. Obiedo first took the Director’s job at SEIC, I observed that Morris Morton, the long time president of the SEIC board of directors, had on his face a look that I would describe as resigned exhaustion. After a couple of years with Sandra in charge I can report that his visage shows something more like… cautious optimism. Lately I’ve seen him smile, and at the last board meeting I swear I heard him chuckle.

As we all know the State of New York is currently undergoing a particularly acute financial crisis, the result of 40 years worth of neoconservative applied looting at the Federal level of government. Governor Paterson is looking for big cuts to recipients of necessary State aid, and SEIC is no exception. Thus, Sandra is asking us members of the board to write letters to Governor Paterson.

Sandra Obiedo Before, Ceiling On Alexander Street

Of course everybody is writing to the Governor these days. “Our program,” these letters all say, “is the most important program to come along since 1609. You cannot cut our budgets, if you do then we will stage riots on your doorstep and starve to death in front of cameras.” Yeah. I’ve been seeing lots of downstate buses parked in Lincoln Park lately, a sure sign of ongoing rallies and lobbies at the Capitol.

Sandra Obiedo After, Alexander Street

So who are we to ask for money when so many others are begging for scraps from the same bucket? Well, I have an idea that I didn’t put in my letter to the Governor, although I thought of doing so. I know of an ongoing unnecessary massive expenditure of cash that needs to be terminated pronto, which could free up funds that could be put to better use.

One one side of the South End, down by the river, Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings wants to cut off a big chunk of land and plant a convention center. No one who lives and pays taxes in the City of Albany wants His convention center. No one that is, except certain elected officials, their dependent minions, and a few select personages along with suburban contractors who stand to benefit personally from this boondoggle.

So far, this Convention Center Authority has managed to funnel quite a bit of State money directly into certain select pockets. Like, a lot of money. Albany County even levied a special tax for a while to help enrich The Mayor’s friends. And let’s not forget all of the City taxpayer funded time and materials that have been sunk into the Con Center.

Proposed Unwanted Convention Center Proposed Unwanted Convention Center

So here’s my suggestion for the Governor. Why not strangle to death the Convention Center Authority? Drown it in a bucket? This would save the taxpayers from spending what in the end will probably amount to hundreds of millions of dollars. There are so many better things that land could be used for that would generate jobs for City residents and tax revenue for City Hall. The current proposed Con Center will provide neither.

The bulk of the millions of dollars saved by the taxpayers could be used to reconstruct the South End from one end to another. Such an investment would not come near to fully compensating the South End for the untold hundreds of millions extracted from our neighborhoods by the City government over the last 60 years or so. But surely such an investment, similar to the amounts routinely plowed into unsustainable suburban hellholes, would bring the South End back to life in a big way.

Then after we free up all that money, how about tossing several tens of thousands of dollars in the direction of South End Improvement Corporation to make up the projected shortfall in our budget? You see, a reconstruction project that costs several hundred million dollars will take a while to get off the ground. Meanwhile, homeowners will still need roofs, furnaces and windows that can open.

But I didn’t say any of that to the Governor. Actually, I said more than enough to him. When I joined the board o SEIC I told Sandra and Morris and the rest of the board that I might not exactly turn out to be a political asset. I’m very much a loose cannon, you never know what I’m going to say or do next.

BTW, I plagiarized some boilerplate from Sandra’s letter to Mr. Paterson. Her letter was much more polite and, shall we say, not as expressive as mine. Here’s what I wrote, it’s not too long:

February 5, 2010

Governor David Paterson
State Capitol
Albany, New York 12224

Re: Neighborhood Preservation and Rural Preservation Program Funding (N/RPP) And The South End Improvement Corporation (SEIC) In The City Of Albany

Dear Governor Paterson:

As I’m sure you’re aware, the Cities of upstate New York have been devastated by 60 years of government policies designed to destroy and eventually obliterate our sustainable urban communities. All across our state we can see the blight and ruination caused by these abhorrent government policies, dying Cities surrounded by unsustainable suburban wastelands that suck the lifeblood out of our Cities like bloated deer ticks.

All levels of government are to blame for creating and sustaining this massive set of policy failures. Certainly the counties, the local municipalities and the feds have all worked for decades to draw the wealth out of our Cities and leave the remaining urban population to scrabble as best they can in the ruined cityscape. But the State of New York takes a large chunk of responsibility for this imposed urban blight.

If our governments destroy a viable community for no reason, as our past elected officials have come close to systematically obliterating the South End of Albany, then our government has a responsibility to repair what it has irresponsibly destroyed.

NYS Governor David Paterson On Morton Avenue Last Year NYS Governor David Paterson On Morton Avenue Last Year


Mr. Paterson, since you assumed office as Governor I have been greatly encouraged by your commitment to providing funds to reconstruct our upstate urban communities. I fully understand that this economic war against our Cities is even written into the New York State Constitution, a system of subsidies and tax breaks designed to encourage the sprawl of suburbs at the expense of Cities and farmland. Thus, the problems are deeply imbedded into the system and beyond the ability of any one person to repair.

However, as Governor you have the power to compensate for these systemic failures, and I thank you for having done so as much as you have. In the months before you took office, your predecessor had deeply slashed the operating budget for the South End Improvement Corporation (SEIC,) an organization of which I am a member of the board of directors. As we board members were all preparing for disaster with the coming new year, you assumed office and almost immediately restored most of our funding, literally just in time.

Before, Second Avenue Furnace Before, Second Avenue Furnace

Right now the government of the City of Albany is in the midst of a small and belated effort to reconstruct the South End of Albany from the ground up, and our venerable nonprofit SEIC is an essential part of this project. Besides SEIC, various agencies and City of Albany departments are working together to reconstruct the South End, particularly Albany Housing Authority, Habitat for Humanity, Trinity Institute, the Albany City Planning Department and others. All of these groups are under the umbrella of the South End Action Committee (SEAC, please don’t be confused by the similar acronyms.)

SEIC provides housing rehabilitation grants to folks primarily in the South End of Albany and to senior citizens in the City of Albany. Our mission is to improve the housing conditions and the quality of life for our community, thereby preserving the residential character of our unique neighborhoods and encouraging City living. We provide assistance to those most in need such as the elderly, disabled and low-income homeowners and tenants of our community.

For example, when it came to our attention last fall that an 85 year old woman was about to face this particularly cold winter without heating equipment in her home, we provided her with a working furnace and radiators. I cannot tell you how many roofs we have replaced, rotting windows and steps, wet moldy basement floors and unusable bathrooms. In addition, we participate in residential building renovation projects through careful application of funds from the Homeowner Rehabilitation Program (HARP.)

After, Second Avenue Furnace After, Second Avenue Furnace

As we work to preserve the quality of life for South End residents who cannot maintain their own homes, simultaneously we are preserving our priceless well-built older housing stock that is the first and foremost asset that distinguishes our South End community. It is plain to see that SEIC successfully and efficiently provides for an important niche at the end of the funding chain, a niche that more conventional agencies cannot fill.

I see the homeowners of the South End, made indigent by government policy, slowly sliding down a gradual slope toward a sheer cliff. It is our job at SEIC to grab these folks as they dangle about to drop off the edge. We don’t affect miracles, but usually we can move folks back up the slope a bit so they can regain their footholds.

The proposed Executive Budget for 2010-2011 is calling for deep cuts of 27 % or more to the Neighborhood Preservation Program and 29% or more to the Rural Preservation Program. The cuts would devastate our organization, create a tremendous hardship and force us to lay off much of our meager staff and mostly abandon the neediest population of people we serve. With an already modest annual investment of less than $85,000 per NPP per fiscal year, cutting funding by 27% could most likely force our small organization to close our doors.

Governor, you are faced with the onerous task of imposing large cutbacks to all sectors funded by the State, and I would guess that you have more than enough letters like this asking you to please make an exception. I am certainly not in a position to tell you how best to carry out your job. It is clear, however, that you are being forced to decide what kinds of programs need to be prioritized by the State, and what sorts of programs are unnecessary.

What I ask is that as you make your hard and unpopular decisions, please remember that urban reconstruction was a priority when you first took office. And while wasteful and ineffective programs should be dropped, the South End Improvement Corporation does not fall into that category and must not be defunded. Our community has suffered long enough under hostile public policy, we must continue this effort to reconstruct the South End before all of us who live and work here slide over that precipice.


Daniel W. Van Riper

Member, Board of Directors South End Improvement Corporation

President, Lincoln Park Neighborhood Association

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