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Part Three Of WAMC's Housing Series: Albany Housing Trends

So-called "Red X" buildings dotting the Albany landscape are being rehabbed as the city moves new housing policies forward.
WAMC photo by Dave Lucas
So-called "Red X" buildings dotting the Albany landscape are being rehabbed as the city moves new housing policies forward.

The city of Albany has a complicated history with building neighborhoods. In the latest in our special series on housing, WAMC’s Capital Region Bureau Chief Dave Lucas reports on how today’s housing trends are playing out on a city that dates back more than four centuries.

The last time the housing picture underwent a dramatic change in the city of Albany in the late 1960's when construction of the South Mall office complex uprooted generations of interconnected ethnic neighborhoods. It sent residents scrambling.  Some called it a "forced migration." 

The current change, equally dramatic, has been progressing "under the radar." Rent is rising across the city.  Re-zoning has resulted in construction of new apartment buildings. "Road diets" are changing the look and flow of major thoroughfares, altering people's perceptions of quality of life in neighborhoods they traverse, along with revitalization of some of the city's oldest neighborhoods sparked by Mayor Kathy Sheehan's vision of a walkable city.

In October, the Democrat presided over a grand re-opening at the Ida Yarborough Apartments, public housing at 280 North Pearl Street at the center of a redevelopment initiative that includes construction of a seven-story, high-tech apartment building.  "When I talk about creating a city where every neighborhood works, where every neighborhood is safe, where every neighborhood has quality housing that's affordable to the people who live there and has access to great jobs, this is the vision. This is the manifestation of that vision of creating housing that is focused on affordability at multiple levels, on our families and on being close to centers for employment and really focusing on creating a sense of pride. When you have pride in your neighborhood, when you have pride in where you live, anything is possible,"

Federal and state tax credits helped fund the $45 million Ida Yarborough project. When complete, there will be 335 apartments. The mayor herself recently moved into a re-habbed home downtown.

In December, the $82 million Knick apartment building, once home to the now-defunct Knickerbocker News, opened at 16 Sheridan Avenue, with 132 apartments.

The Albany County Land Bank has been a driving force behind rehabilitation in the city. Adam Zaranko is executive director.   "We serve a wide variety of buyers, everyone from first time home buyers that are ready to take on a rehab project to investors who have sizable real estate portfolios and everything in between, including owner occupants. So we see a lot of people of all different ages, but especially more and more young folks who are not prepared to move into one of the shared, you know, apartment complexes that are being built around the region. They want to do homeownership, but also have a revenue stream. So they may buy a building and do an owner occupied scenario where, you know, they rent out one unit and live in the other, because rental is not for everyone. And in many cases, we can create pathways to building wealth through real estate ownership that may not be available to folks through the traditional real estate equity acquisition process."

While some would like to put the brakes on new rehab projects and housing developments, others, like Rebecca Garrard, statewide organizer for Housing Justice with Citizen Action of New York, are calling for increased protection for tenants, including rent stabilization.  "50 percent of renters in Albany pay more than 30 percent of their income in rent, and we know that that is not an affordable metric. And it feeds housing insecurity. So, you know, we know that new developments around housing tends to be luxury-based and caters towards high income tenants. And so what we don't have is development of housing that is affordable to community members. We live in a state where half of residents are rent burdened, and that is the exact same statistic we see here in Albany. Homelessness is on the rise. And so, you know, the reality is that for every person across the state, housing is something that is a concern on a daily basis, how to pay for it. You know, people are one paycheck away. One crisis away from, you know, a situation that could displace them."

According to the website Rent Jungle, the average apartment rent over the last six months in Albany has increased by $214 (19.8%). Average rent for an apartment in Albany is $1,300, a 15.12% increase from last year.

This fall, the Common Council passed a new equity agenda to assist neighborhoods with the greatest needs. While not specifically directed toward housing, Common Councilor Dorcey Applyrs — later tapped to be the next city auditor — said it serves as an influencer.   "There is no specific language in the equity legislation that speaks to housing. That being said, what we anticipate will indirectly happen is that will we distribute our city resources in an equitable manner? We bring up the quality of the built environment in all of our wards. And in turn, this promotes mixed income communities and I think, a desire for people to move into wards that they haven't looked at before. For example, in the legislation, we address issues such as violence, infrastructure, sidewalk, streets, those things are really important to people when they're looking at where they want to live."

Citizen Action's Garrard favors a vacancy study. She says knowing the vacancy rate will help Albany develop protections for city residents living in rental housing. She concedes there is fear when talk turns to rent stabilization.   "There's a ton of fear and some pushback around the idea of rent stabilization coming to Albany. But again, it does not prohibit real estate being profitable. Real estate will continue to be probably the most profitable industry that you can find. But we have to begin to do something to address, you know, the affordability crisis that renters are experiencing in the city of Albany."

Mayor Sheehan's outlook takes a 180 degree turn.   "Well, you know, we are seeing unprecedented investment in housing, really at all levels. We're seeing unprecedented investment in affordable housing and unprecedented investment and market rate housing and workforce housing. So, we're really seeing developers come in and build for people really at every spectrum across the income lines, which is really what we need to be seeing. We need to ensure that we're creating housing that is affordable to the people who live in the city and that we're also attracting people to the city. You know, when people ask about all of these apartments and hundreds of millions of dollars that we're investing, they keep saying 'who's gonna live there?' And I remind them this used to be a city of 136,000 people, and we want to make sure that we're continuing to win in the global competition for people."

House prices and trends website Redfin describes the Albany housing market as "very competitive," noting the average Albany house price was $200,000 last month, up 2 percent over last year.

Dave Lucas is WAMC’s Capital Region Bureau Chief. Born and raised in Albany, he’s been involved in nearly every aspect of local radio since 1981. Before joining WAMC, Dave was a reporter and anchor at WGY in Schenectady. Prior to that he hosted talk shows on WYJB and WROW, including the 1999 series of overnight radio broadcasts tracking the JonBenet Ramsey murder case with a cast of callers and characters from all over the world via the internet. In 2012, Dave received a Communicator Award of Distinction for his WAMC news story "Fail: The NYS Flood Panel," which explores whether the damage from Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee could have been prevented or at least curbed. Dave began his radio career as a “morning personality” at WABY in Albany.