Foss: Schenectady owns hundreds of vacant buildings

A rundown house at 16 Jefferson St. in Schenectady is pictured.
A rundown house at 16 Jefferson St. in Schenectady is pictured.

Last April I wrote about one of Schenectady’s many dilapidated vacant buildings, a vine-covered monstrosity with holes in the roof and a big pile of garbage in the rear yard. 

To say that the property was in poor condition is an understatement, but I believed — perhaps naively — that bringing attention to it would help get it cleaned up. 

Earlier this month I returned to the property, located at 16 Jefferson St., to see what, if anything, had changed in the year since I wrote about. 

In one sense, very little has changed. 

The building remains a deteriorating, blighted eyesore with a trash-strewn backyard that includes an ugly old sofa and broken TVs. 

But in another sense, a lot has changed. 

The property has a new owner: the city of Schenectady, which took possession of it last fall. 

From the perspective of Gerald Plante, who lives around the corner from 16 Jefferson St., the conditions at the property are no better, and might even be worse, than under its previous deadbeat owner, a limited liability corporation based in Cheyenne, Wyo., that lost the building through foreclosure after failing to pay $75,000 in back taxes. 

“It should have been taken down when the city took possession of it,” Plante told me. “If they can’t get it cleaned up, something’s wrong.” 

Something is wrong — and it’s much bigger than one vacant building. 

Schenectady owns 437 vacant buildings — a staggering number by any stretch of the imagination. 

According to city officials, there are 869 vacant properties in Schenectady, which means the city owns roughly half of its vacant housing stock. 

The hope is that acquiring these structures will make it easier to demolish the properties least likely to attract buyers, and to sell properties to people interested in rehabbing them. Last year, the city sold 146 vacant lots and buildings for a total of $2.43 million. The year before, it sold 89 lots and buildings for $1.67 million.

“It’s a slow, methodical, systematic approach,” Schenectady Mayor Gary McCarthy said. 

It might be too slow for some people, but I’m not sure there’s any way to make it faster. 

Whether it’s possible to do more to secure the buildings and keep them free of garbage is another matter. 

I’ve spoken to a number of Schenectady residents who are frustrated by the unkempt, often unsanitary, state of neighboring zombie properties owned by the city. They believe the city is responsible for these properties and should do a better job of maintaining them. 

Certainly, it’s easy to sympathize with Plante, who has lived around the corner from 16 Jefferson St. for years, or Schenectady homeowner Karen Endres, who lives two doors down from a city-owned vacant house on Turner Avenue that’s become a haven for feral cats. 

When I visited the house on Turner Avenue, I saw a cat crawl out from under the porch and observed a cat’s tail, orange and mangy, rotting on the back porch. 

“That’s disgusting,” Endres said. 

The property also attracts people — people who dump garbage in the backyard, and people who try to break into the building.  

“I’ve caught people in there,” Endres told me.   

Endres’ desire to see the city do more to keep its properties clean and safe is understandable.

But I have a little more sympathy for the city after learning just how many zombie properties it owns.

Let’s be clear: This is a highly unusual situation, and it reflects Schenectady’s more recent history — the sharp decline in population tied to downsizing at General Electric, and the subsequent erosion of the city’s property tax base. 

“This is a problem that’s 30 or 40 years in the making,” City Corporation Counsel Carl Falotico told me. “We’re not going to solve it in four years or eight years, but we’re making headway.” 

No city should own as much property as Schenectady does, and I suspect that the city owns more property than it can handle. 

Which doesn’t necessarily mean the city should stop acquiring vacant properties that have fallen into disrepair. 

Too often, such properties are purchased on the cheap by speculators who do little or nothing with them. Taking ownership allows the city to market and sell them with the aid of local real estate agents, and to keep them out of the hands of unscrupulous buyers such as the LLC that purchased 16 Jefferson St. for $1,667 in 2014. 

“It’s a major babysitting project,” McCarthy said, when asked about the city’s ownership of vacant properties. He added that the city does the best it can to clean up the properties to the “point where people see the opportunity.” 

The city has also demolished roughly 200 properties over the past seven years.

That’s real progress, but when you consider how many vacant properties there are in the city, you realize it’s only a drop in the bucket. And demolitions are expensive — approximately $55,000-$60,000 per single-family house, according to Falotico — which explains why the city doesn’t knock more buildings down. 

It doesn’t make sense for the city to invest a lot of money in the decrepit buildings that it acquires. 

But it’s worth asking whether some of the money the city makes selling off city-owned properties ought to be used to pay someone to clean and maintain them. I observed a number of city-owned properties with broken windows — a problem that will hasten a building’s decline and make it harder to sell.

Of course, vacant properties are also hot spots for crime — for graffiti artists, and garbage dumpers and squatters looking for a place to stay. These activities take a toll on the property, which can make them difficult to keep up with. 

As for 16 Jefferson St., I’m happy to report that there should be a positive outcome soon. 

David Hogenkamp, executive director of the Capital Region Land Bank, told me that the structure will probably be knocked down later this year when the land bank does another round of demolitions. 

“It’s on the list,” Hogenkamp said. “The community has identified it as a priority.” 

That’s good news. 

The problem is that there are so many blighted buildings, and we’ll be addressing them for years, if not decades, to come. 

Reach Gazette columnist Sara Foss at [email protected]. Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. 

Categories: Opinion

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