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Capital Region Cities Install Monitors In Vacant Buildings

Albany maintains a Vacant Building Registry and questionable buildings that have been deemed unsafe are marked with a red X.
WAMC photo by Dave Lucas
Vacant buildings deemed unsafe are often marked with a red X.

Three Capital Region cities are testing security devices to deter break-ins at vacant buildings.

The mayors of Albany, Troy and Schenectady say the solar-powered CASPER devices can detect fire and motion. Schenectady Mayor Gary McCarthy, a Democrat, says some of the monitors have already been installed. 

Credit Jesse King / WAMC
Schenectady Mayor Gary McCarthy announces the pilot program at a Tuesday press conference at Schenectady city hall.

“At this point we’re not commenting on the specific number or the houses solely for security purposes to keep people guessing," explains McCarthy. "[It’s] initially a small deployment, but we’re looking to ramp that up over the next few months.”

Once triggered, the small black boxes alert first responders.

The pilot program comes as Capital Region cities continue to struggle with blighted properties – and the fires that often follow. The week before McCarthy gathered his Democratic mayoral colleagues at Schenectady city hall, an early morning fire tore through an empty building on Schenectady’s Eagle Street. In July, a River Street fire damaged Troy’s Marshall Ray buildingas it was undergoing a $16 million renovation. And Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan recalls an August fire on Myrtle Avenue that displaced more than 40 people.

“We had one vacant building, vagrants were getting in, the police would come and rouse them out, we would board it up, they would break in again, and unfortunately a fire started in that building," says Sheehan. "There were six homes that were lost, including a home that had been in the same family for a century.”

Troy and Schenectady each have roughly 600 vacant buildings, while Sheehan says Albany could have up to 1,000. Troy Mayor Patrick Madden, who like McCarthy is up for reelection next month, says rehabilitation is a particularly difficult and drawn-out process because each building is vacant for unique reasons.

“But until we get to that point, these properties are a danger in our communities – and this new utilization of technology is an opportunity for us to remove that danger while we’re working on long-term solutions to these vacant and blighted properties," notes Madden. 

Each CASPER device costs about $300, with a $15 to $20 monthly monitoring fee. Given a successful pilot, McCarthy says he would like to see devices installed in all vacant buildings – and Sheehan is open to having zombie property owners cover the cost.

Credit Jesse King / WAMC
The solar-powered CASPER devices are designed to be installed in the windows of vacant buildings.

“Because we want to continue to have disincentives for properties to be vacant for long periods of time," explains Sheehan. "So I think one of the things that we’re interested in knowing about this technology is ‘Does it help us to turn off the tap?’ and does it help us in deterring people from entering these buildings because they know that they’re being monitored.”

CASPER Security began in Louisville, Kentucky as the result of a civic innovation competition in 2015. CEO Nathan Armentrout says the devices are still undergoing testing there as well, and while it’s not part of the initial Capital Region tests, he says the boxes are capable of alerting neighbors in addition to local law enforcement.

“One of the complaints that we heard about from neighbors, when we talked [about] issues particularly in Louisville – they want to know when the fire happens, not when the fire truck gets there. Because there’s a differential there," notes Armentrout. "And so part of our platform is to be able to empower neighborhoods and communities to be aware of situations that are happening next door. And so we send emails, phone calls, and text messages to neighbors who consent and want to get those alerts.”

Syracuse and Binghamton also plan to test the devices.

Jesse King is the host of WAMC's national program on women's issues, "51%," and the station's bureau chief in the Hudson Valley. She has also produced episodes of the WAMC podcast "A New York Minute In History."
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