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Your Friendly Neighborhood PAC

A group of Albany citizens organizes to try to set the agenda for the November elections

There is no equity in our neighborhoods,” said Judith Mazaa, a South End resident and political organizer. The current city administration, she added, ignores whole neighborhoods, letting sidewalks crumble, houses collapse, streets remain covered in filth, and it leaves the people in these neighborhoods to struggle against an economic development agenda that offers them little to no opportunity.

Mazaa began meeting with a group of people from throughout the city of Albany last summer with an explicit goal in mind: to set the agenda for November’s election season. To that end, a political action committee was formed from those regular, mostly informal meetings of sometimes 30 people—Albany Neighborhoods First—and a position paper was produced.

Dominick Calsolaro, Carolyn McLaughlin, Shawn Morris, Corey Ellis, Barbara Smith and Catherine Fahey, all members of Albany’s Common Council, contributed to the effort.

“There was a small group of us who felt strongly, because the elections are coming up and all the city offices are up for reelection and we wanted to be proactive and set the agenda,” said Mazaa. “It was a group effort. Our concern, and it has been all along, is that our neighborhoods have basically been neglected. We have built up downtown, but we have ignored our neighborhoods. If people aren’t living here, what happens? We don’t care if people are going downtown if nobody is living here. We don’t want a commuter city. We want a city where people live. We live here, by choice, and believe that it is a beautiful city, but the neighborhoods have to come first.”

Albany’s ballooning operating budget, which has grown by 60 percent over the past 10 years to $161.9 million, must be brought under control, the group’s treatise reads. For too long the city has overspent its revenue, relying heavily on state aid and debt. ANF suggests a yearly 5 percent reduction in the budget, to bring the debt service payment under $10 million in 10 years.

The document targets a need for Albany to create a “cabinet-level position of energy director” and to reconfigure public transit routes to better serve the people who live in the city and not just those who are commuting to work. The social catastrophe of Albany’s abandoned buildings and the blight that accompanies them are also addressed in the document, with an urgent call to improve code enforcement. The reinstitution of sound community policing and an investment in youth programs are called for to curb the frightening clip of violence in Arbor Hill and the South End—a clip of violence, Mazaa reminded, that is spreading out into neighborhoods once considered “safe.”

Albany Neighborhoods First wants a government, as they wrote, “in step with its citizens,” a government that addresses education, the need for radical infrastructure improvements, and offers an open process for creating Albany’s Comprehensive Plan.

“We are looking at racial and economic justice throughout the city, so that everyone has an opportunity for a decent job and education,” Mazaa said. “This is the platform, this is the agenda, these are the issues we want answers to.”

“I live in the South End, and I like living in the South End. But just because I live in the South End doesn’t mean I should have to put up with crap on my streets. No, I am not living on Marion Avenue or Manning Boulevard,” she said. “Basically the theme of the whole document, the underlying theme of the whole document is, ‘How do we promote economic development that promotes economic and racial justice?’”

—Chet Hardin

What a Week


Full House

Troy City Council members want to take their time with a proposal aimed at curbing “minidorms”

The Troy City Council is planning to extend a controversial moratorium on subdividing houses to allow for more time to revise a proposal introduced by the Troy Architecture Program.

The decision to extend the moratorium, which has already been in place since last winter, for an additional six months to a year was made after a Feb. 20 special council meeting on a proposal to counter the practice of converting single- or two-family houses into dwellings with multiple bedrooms rented out to students or other unrelated adults. Homeowners from the neighborhoods surrounding Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute have been concerned with issues of neighborhood quality and parking in the areas where these dwellings are present.

According to Councilman John Brown (D-At Large), the council will motion at the Finance Committee meeting tonight to add the moratorium to the agenda for next month’s meeting.

“They’re increasing the number of people that they can put in a building by converting two separate units into one unit,” Brown said. “The TAP proposal is crafted to basically put a definition on this situation.”

Rather than addressing the conversions directly, the proposal sets definitions for the term “roomer” as “a person who lives in a rented room, whether or not they pay rent individually.” The proposal also considers a group of roomers different from a family in that it is “an unrelated group of individuals living together temporarily for convenience.” The proposal would place these “rooming houses” in commercial zones only.

The need for the moratorium extension became apparent after people voiced concerns at the public hearing over whom the proposal would actually affect.

“By targeting a specific problem, we may be painting with too broad a brush, and a family that actually owns their home could fall victim to this if they wanted to do work on their home to make it more livable,” Brown said. “That’s something that we’ll have to look at, the language of how this is implemented to make sure that we’re specifically targeting the problem we’re trying to address and that there isn’t any overlap.”

Although generally supported by the community members present at the public hearing, the proposal has received some criticism from property groups and landlords specializing in student housing.

“I think it’s a dangerous precedent, and a slippery slope as far as discrimination issues and fair housing,” said Jason Hayes, of the Troy Property Group, who described the public hearing as a “kind of student-bashing fest. The fact is that RPI has 3,000 students with off-campus housing, and they’re not going to go away. I’m hopeful that the students will have a voice.”

The Troy Property Group had previous issues with the moratorium. In August 2008 the company filed a lawsuit against the Troy City Council after the moratorium was passed. The lawsuit was later dismissed at the end of October.

Hayes said that he is very confident in the service that the Troy Property Group provides, and fears that if legitimate property companies are hurt by the proposal, students will fall victim to slumlords. He also expressed concerns over what he sees as a potential conflict of interest between Joe Fama, executive director of TAP, and various neighborhood associations.

“I think its very important to have an unbiased architecture firm look at the issue,” Hayes said. The council estimated that it would take three to four months to hammer out the details of the proposal, and they are extending the moratorium for at least six months to give themselves a cushion. Brown said that while the lawsuit from Troy Property Group was not a major concern, the council would take measures to secure the legality of the proposal.

“Seeing as the lawsuit that they brought forward was thrown out and basically deemed by the judge to have no merit, I don’t expect to have a lot of resistance from them as we move forward, but we’re going to have to wait and see,” Brown said. “If you have the resources you can sue someone over anything, really.”

Brown also said that the council is not planning on making the proposal retroactive.

“You’re in a situation where someone’s already done work on a building, they’ve already invested money in doing something like that, and to target them and to take rental money out of their pocket by saying that they’re renting to too many people,” he said. “I don’t know if we can legally go after them on that.”

With the expected extension of the moratorium, which was originally scheduled to expire on March 31, the council will have at least until the end of September to make changes to the proposal. There will also be at least two more public hearings where students, property owners and Troy residents will be able to express their views on this proposal.

—Cecelia Martinez


Photo: Chet Hardin

Democratic Congressman Paul Tonko (left) came to Troy Monday to deliver the good word. That day, President Barack Obama would be flying to Denver to sign the $787 billion stimulus bill into law. Tonko happily promised that anywhere from $24 to $27 billion of that windfall would make its way to New York. Troy’s Republican Mayor Harry Tutunjian (right) hosted the congressman for the morning press conference and took the opportunity to enumerate his wish list of multimillion-dollar infrastructure projects. The two men were flanked by members of the county Legislature, the mayors from Green Island and Cohoes, the Rensselaer County executive, and Republican chairman of the Rensselaer County Legislature Neil Kelleher (center), who said he was happy to be getting a handout from the Democratic president and Congress.

Loose Ends

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