The Vacant Building Crisis Up Close

December 8, 2013

Looking around his own neighborhood the blogger sees the crisis for himself all too clearly

A couple of months ago I was giving a short presentation at a Council of Albany Neighborhoods (CANA) meeting. At the end of it I commented to the crowd that the last vacant house in my immediate neighborhood was finally being fixed up and would soon be occupied. Boy, you should have seen the looks of amazement and envy on the faces of most of the other neighborhood representatives, if only they could say something like that about their neighborhoods!

Well, the very next day I took a good hard look at the house next door to mine and realized, to my horror, that it had gone vacant. I could see that not only was nobody renting the two flats in the building, but from the lack of recent activity that the owner had not been preparing the building to show tenants. That’s what I get for bragging, I guess.

In the next week or so I did some further looking around and realized that some more houses on my street had recently quietly gone vacant. Furthermore, just before the November election, as The Wife and I were handing out campaign literature, we were startled to discover many more vacant houses in the surrounding neighborhoods. It is clear that the Vacant Housing Crisis, that great national destroyer of American Cities, has not abated one bit.

The Newly Vacant House Next door The Newly Vacant House Next door

A few weeks ago I called up the owner of the building next door, who lives about an hour’s drive away from here west of Schenectady. I knew he had been having problems taking care of his rental properties, which were scattered all across the Capital District. This is a common mistake of would-be property owners, you really need to live close to your properties. The farther you have to travel the less you will be able to take care of your investments.

The other big mistake that he was making was that he was treating his collection of scattered properties as a second job. That works if you own, say, one house in your neighborhood that you can walk to when water starts shooting out of the bathroom wall at two in the morning. And most importantly, if you have to look at your property every time you walk out of your house, then you most certainly will find the time to make the building look decent and you will fill the apartments with tolerable neighbors.

I also knew that the owner, whom I will call George, had not been paying his taxes or his bank mortgage payments. If you don’t pay your bills for a while, the debt accumulates until it is unmanageable. His solution has been to abandon his buildings, let the bank and the authorities take possession of the properties and remove his responsibility.

I said, “Why don’t you try to sell it?” He said, “I would but I couldn’t get out of the sale the money I had put into it.” I knew that to be true, he had made another common mistake. He had taken out loans to buy the house at an inflated price, but had let it fall into such deplorable shape that if he managed to sell it he could barely get half of what he owed.

Lincoln Park Last April, Looking Toward My Street. Why Couldn't A Responsible Landlord Attract Good Tenants To My Neighborhood? Lincoln Park Last April, Looking Toward My Street. Why Couldn’t A Responsible Landlord Attract Good Tenants To My Neighborhood?

George is a hands-on guy, but he had no idea how to make these apartments attractive, which is essential if you want good steady tenants who will be willing to pay decent rents. He was not very realistic about this, for example he once had the nerve to blame the mulch pile in my back yard for his inability to rent his apartments. Like, it had nothing to do with all the cracks in the plaster walls and the permanent pool of water on the flat roof that several times a year drains through the kitchen ceilings? (Instead of solving the roof drainage problem he rebuilt both of the kitchens twice!)

His solution to what he sees as purely a personal financial problem is to walk away from the property. “That way,” George explained, “I won’t have to pay off the mortgage.” I’m sure his credit is shot and he still owes a pile of taxes, so I don’t think he has thought this all the way through. But without a doubt abandonment is a sure-fire way to eliminate owing a bank mortgage.

It didn’t really surprise me to hear from him that he had given up trying. “Yes,” he offered without my prompting, “I was a bad landlord, and I failed.” I’d seen enough of his management style to agree wholeheartedly, but I decided to not say that out loud. Instead I clenched my teeth and replied that landlording was not a job for everyone and terminated the call. What’s the use.

Dorothy's House Dorothy’s House

Across the street from my house another vacancy has developed this past month. A 91 year old lady named Dorothy, who had been living in her house for something like 50 years, finally had to be moved to a “supportive living facility.” She had been having various elderly health problems and had to be watched closely, but I’m told by her relatives that she is quite happy in the communal place. And her little dog, who always barked hello at me when I walked past the house, has been adopted by relatives and is being well taken care of.

That just leaves the house. Fortunately her brother, a man in his 70s, has taken responsibility for the house and is planning to sell it as soon as possible. In the past few weeks he has contracted to have the house cleared of her many now unwanted possessions, I’ve watched the guys load up the junk trucks with everything including carpets. Most of it was of little value, but some of the lower income folks in my neighborhood watched wistfully as her old but serviceable furniture was thrown unceremoniously into the trucks.

Her brother is looking to make the house attractive as possible to a buyer, notably he is having her old furnace replaced. The furnace in there is an old coal burner converted to gas. I grew up in a house with one of those that ran on fuel oil, made of cast iron with a sealed door in front where one used to have to shovel coal. Such devices are terribly inefficient, I would guess that her winter power bills, of which she occasionally complained, were ridiculously high.

Lincoln Park Last May, Seen From My Street Lincoln Park Last May, Seen From My Street

Her brother is well-meaning and I am very glad that he is taking responsibility for this building, which otherwise is in pretty good shape. But he is a suburbanite, from Brunswick across the Hudson River, and he has the typical suburbanite attitude toward the City of Albany. While talking to him I caught a few references from him about “Dorothy insisted on living around here” and that he wanted to get rid of the house so that he “didn’t have to be caught around here at night.”

Thus I made a special point of explaining to him that The Wife and I have lived across the street since the 1980s, that Dorothy had been an excellent neighbor, and that I hoped to see the house occupied by an owner or at least owned by a responsible landlord who lived nearby and would take care of the property. I told him the neighborhood had gone downhill in the 1990s but for the last ten years or so had been improving greatly. I also explained that I had invested heavily in this neighborhood and owned a number of rental properties around the corner on Morton Avenue, and thus was very interested in seeing the neighborhood continue to improve.

He listened to me carefully, and I hope he understands that the person to whom he sells the house very much matters to his sister’s longtime neighbors. I can’t cure his suburbanite attitudes, but hopefully he understands that we neighbors are real people just like him and his sister, and not just a bunch of horrible animals living in a horrible place where nothing matters, which is how suburbanites see us here in Albany. I guess we’ll find out.

Building At South Swan And Morton Avenue, Sold For An Unexpectedly High Price, Recently Abandoned Building In Background At Right Building At South Swan And Morton Avenue, Sold For An Unexpectedly High Price, Recently Abandoned Building In Background At Right

A few days later I heard that a building three doors down from my house, a three unit brick building facing out on Morton Avenue toward the park, had been sold for a hefty price. The former owner, a retired guy who had originally planned to live in the building but changed his mind, had taken care of the building and had put in plenty of improvements. I had no complaints about him, when problems arose or his tenants turned out to be problematic he was right there on top of the problems.

A couple of months ago he told me he was putting the building up for sale. He mentioned the price and I looked at him with surprise and said, “That’s all? I’d expect you to sell it for more.” He looked back at me with surprise and said that the real estate agent had basically told him that if he was serious about selling it then he really couldn’t expect more than that price. Yep. That’s one way how real estate agents, who are mostly suburbanites, do their part to downgrade the City of Albany. I hear this stuff all the time.

Well sure enough it only took him about a month to sell the building, and I hear he ended up getting about $40 thousand more than he had originally been told that he could expect. For the last week I’ve been seeing that the new owner, whom I’m hearing from her contractors is quite wealthy, has been making all sorts of improvements to the building. I will have to be sure to tell this to Dorothy’s brother the next time I see him.

Oh, and by the way, the building that George abandoned is right next door behind this brick building.

The Republican's House, Now Vacant The Republican’s House, Now Vacant

Elderly people forced to leave their homes because of age infirmities has always been a leading cause of houses going vacant in Albany. Up the street on the same side as my home is a house with a plaque that says it was built in 1870. It sits on a small rise that back in the 1830s was the embankment for the DeWitt-Clinton railroad, one of the first passenger railroads ever built. Another house two doors down from it may originally have been a train station.

This 1870 house is now vacant. It was the home of a fellow whom I referred to as The Republican along with his wife, this because for many years he and his wife were the only registered Republicans in the neighborhood. He was a retired railroad worker who had achieved a low management position. He carried his bottom rung management attitude into retirement, a couple of times I heard cops refer to him as “the mayor of South Swan Street.”

Shortly after I moved into my house he rang my bell, and proceed to inform me that I needed to mow my lawn and trim my bushes. I thanked him for his interest. After that he haughtily informed me several more times that I should do this or that to my yard and to my house. After it became clear that I was going to do whatever I wanted in my own good time, he became angry and went on the warpath. Story of my life folks, happens to me over and over. I have no idea why I attract such people, I just do.

Once Possibly An 1830s Railroad Station, This House Was Vacant For Over 15 Years Before it Was Renovated By An Entrepreneur And Is Now Occupied Once Possibly An 1830s Railroad Station, This House Was Vacant For Over 15 Years Before it Was Renovated By An Entrepreneur And Is Now Occupied

Not long after that I caught The Republican’s wife on my property stealing the flowers off my purple lilac bush, I asked her what she was doing. Looking down her nose at me, she informed me that the former owner of my house let her take flowers all the time. I was about to say well, okay then, but before I could speak she turned around theatrically, stuck her nose up at a 45 degree angle, and stalked off awkwardly just like that with the stolen flowers in her hands. She never spoke directly to me again.

The Republican would repeatedly tell my neighbors that I was the blight of the neighborhood, and more than once waved his hand in my direction and loudly proclaimed with a sneer, “These people don’t care.” That’s me, These People. If I forgot to move my vehicles for the street sweeper he would call the police, and whenever because of that The Wife’s car or my truck got a ticket he would come up close to my face and laugh. Several times I caught him deliberately piling snow up around my truck if I’d parked it near his house.

Lincoln Park This Past October, Looking Toward My Street Lincoln Park This Past October, Looking Toward My Street

In short, he and his wife behaved like typical Republicans. But in the early 1990s he suddenly quit picking on me when word got around the neighborhood that I was buying some of the nearby houses. You see, in his mind I was fair game for abuse until I became a multiple property owner, that is, had become socially elevated above him. After that he and his wife just carefully avoided me, but they continued to throw me nasty looks right up to the end.

As their old age infirmities mounted, it seemed like every few days for like a year the City EMTs were being called to their house, sirens and lights and fire ladder trucks and ambulances blocking the street. Of course they were opposed to “government handouts” but selfishly availed themselves of those services for themselves when they needed them.

I certainly don’t miss having these nasty jerks as neighbors, yet I will say that these jerks kept their house in perfect shape. But naturally the house began to look shabby as they aged, and now that the jerk owners are gone it looks vacant and run down. I have no idea what is going to happen to the house, but I suspect that his relatives or whoever else ends up disposing of the house are not going to care one bit about the neighborhood.

Former Commercial Laundry And Later Demolition Company At The End Of The Street, Now Vacant Former Commercial Laundry And Later Demolition Company At The End Of The Street, Now Vacant

At the end of the street, which is a dead end, is a one story commercial building. Old timers remember it as a contract laundry business that cleaned mostly diapers, but of course went out of business as cloth diapers were replaced with unbiodegradable disposables. When I first moved into the neighborhood it was occupied by an outfit called Ritz Trucking, later called A Ritz Trucking. They were the first of several concerns that ran big trucks up and down our street at all hours and they expected the neighborhood to accommodate them without complaint.

For years Ritz had the exclusive contract for City demolitions. Many, many times we watched the Ritz trucks pull out of their yard behind the building and parade down our street at exactly 9 PM on Friday nights, on their way to demolish some historic and irreplaceable City of Albany buildings through the middle of the night. This was mighty lucrative for Ritz working at night like that, but as we all know our City leaders wouldn’t waste taxpayer money so conspicuously unless they had a spurious political reason.

City Hall had Ritz sneak out on Friday night so as to avoid criticism from both the media and especially from housing preservation advocates. By the time the light of Saturday morning dawned another one or more of Albany’s treasures had been transformed into a worthless pile of rubble. Just as importantly, because it was the weekend, and because this was before the internet, the news of another disgusting middle of the night demolition would not make it into the corporate media and most people wouldn’t find out about the destructive attack until weeks or even months after it happened.

Historic Knitting Factory Block On south pearl Street Destroyed In The Middle Of The Night By DiTonno, Saturday Morning, February 2008 Historic Knitting Factory Block On South Pearl Street Destroyed In The Middle Of The Night By DiTonno, Saturday Morning, February 2008

Favored by Jerry Jennings and therefore rolling in dough, Bill Ritz, the owner of the demolition company, had big plans for my neighborhood. He wanted to buy all the houses at the end of my street, tear them down and use the land to park his trucks and expand his business. He had, to put it mildly, deep contempt for my neighbors.

In 1990 Bill Ritz managed to buy the house at 226 South Swan Street next to his headquarters in the former laundry and promptly evicted the tenants. He then let the house at 226 undergo what we call Demolition By Neglect, that is, encourage the building to disintegrate until it gets so bad that the City and the neighbors demand that it be torn down. It’s an old trick. The tudor houses owned by Picotte Real Estate nearby on Holland Avenue are currently undergoing this sleazy process, which I reported on back in 2009.

One Of The Picotte-Owned Houses On Holland Avenue Undergoing Demolition By Neglect One Of The Picotte-Owned Houses On Holland Avenue Undergoing Demolition By Neglect

Ritz’s immediate plan was to buy the house next to it at 224, get an automatic zoning change from Jennings’ Board of Zoning Appeals, and get permission from His Majesty to tear down both 226 and 224. But the owner of 224 refused to sell to Ritz. Eventually A Ritz lost the City contract (perhaps because Jennings wanted to stop His sneaky middle of the night demolitions from being observed and broadcast across the City by me and The Wife, heh) and some time after that Bill Ritz dropped dead of a heart attack. I must say that I did not shed any tears at his sudden demise.

I heard that all the property passed to Ritz’ son who had no interest in hanging on to it. The commercial building that fronts on South Swan Street has been vacant for a while, although for the last few years the yard and the building annex in back has been rented by some sort of sketchy auto shop. I can’t tell you who currently owns the vacant commercial building fronting on South Swan, there was a tediously complicated land deal that fell through and last I heard the ownership was in limbo. One of these days I’ll look into it further.

Resurrected House At 226 Resurrected House At 226

But the good news is that after sitting vacant and rotting for some 23 years, the house at 226 was bought earlier this year by a fellow who is renovating it on weekends and occasionally on evenings. He has stabilized the outside and, sad to say, has completely gutted the inside. Too bad, you can’t replace those plaster walls. But then I don’t know what shape they were in, it’s possible that they were past saving.

It was this house that caused me to make my wildly inaccurate statement about vacant houses disappearing in my neighborhood at the CANA meeting. In 2011 some creeps tried to steal the copper out of the house, but the neighbors called the police and to my astonishment the police responded and caught them in the act. I’d also heard that the roof had finally begun to leak, that usually means the end of the entire structure. I fully expected this house would soon be demolished, but here it is coming back to life.

This is how the Vacant Building Crisis looks just on my two block long street. There are several more houses on my street that look like they are heading towards going vacant, including one that goes vacant on and off again. I’m not even discussing the buildings located immediately behind my street on either side, and I’m not talking about the ones we discovered downhill on Morton Avenue. Certainly these buildings go through a cycle of vacancy and occupancy, but there is an alarm point where the large number of vacancies threaten to take over the neighborhood and destroy it.

The new regime of Mayor-elect Kathy Sheehan that is moving into Albany City Hall on January 1st will inherit a long list of serious problems to untangle and solve, all of them either generated by or made intolerably worse by the outgoing regime of Jerry Jennings. This entire tangle of problems is usually expressed simply as The Budget, mostly because no matter how you define a problem in our City it eventually translates into money being disbursed by the City government. There’s a lot of disagreement over which problem ranks first above the others, but everyone seems to agree that The Budget is a mess that needs radical measures to be repaired.

Kathy Sheehan, Flanked By Congressman Paul Tonko And Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Slams Jerry Jennings' Final Proposed Budget For Albany, August 2013

Kathy Sheehan, Flanked By Congressman Paul Tonko And Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Slams Jerry Jennings’ Final Proposed Budget For Albany, August 2013

To permanently solve the problems with The Budget we must first solve the problems in the real world. It’s not enough to merely fiddle with The Budget, which is merely a reflection of those problems. That is what the outgoing regime has mostly done for the past 20 years. The new mayor is known as a numbers person and the voting public expects her to make the numbers work. But she is going to have to do a lot more than fiddle with The Budget.

If Mayor Sheehan can solve this problem of vacant buildings then the City’s budget will eventually become automatically solvent, almost like magic. Basically, if you fill the vacant houses with taxpayers, then the City can collect revenue from the taxpayers. And since taxpayers have to eat and take care of other needs, a local retail sector will arise to service their needs, and retail outlets pay taxes too. Problem solved. But how?

First she has to bring the vacant buildings back on line. Ms. Sheehan has said flatly that she can fix the City’s pathetic Code Enforcement in three months, currently Albany spends about 30 percent of what other Cities of similar size spend on code enforcement. That’s the first step. But then what? What happens next? I hope we get a chance to see her implement a solution soon, because time has already run out and the Vacant Building Crisis is destroying our community.