By Denise Richardson Staff Writer
The Daily Star
---- — Faced with a growing number of vacant or abandoned homes, plus a need for rental units, the city of Oneonta has embarked with a not-for-profit organization on a plan to improve housing options through revitalization of properties and neighborhoods.
Housing Visions Consultants, in conjunction with the city and other local partners, plans a $15 million housing development project to address needs for high-quality affordable housing and neighborhood revitalization, a project summary said. The blight remediation of vacant or underutilized structures would be through construction or renovation, a project summary said.
The city’s focus and initiative stem from work of the Oneonta Housing Task Force, a panel that identified local housing needs and shaped concerns into goals.
Housing Visions Consultants, the developer and managing agent, is a subsidiary of Housing Visions Unlimited Inc., an organization founded in 1990 that is a government-certified Community Housing Development Organization, Neighborhood Preservation Company and a not-for-profit entity.
Housing Visions would buy properties, hire contractors to build or restore units and then manage the properties, officials said.
The Oneonta proposal includes building senior housing, with about 40 units, on Clinton Street near Silver Creek and building and developing about 20 family housing units, with a focus on the Center City area and possibly some properties on Chestnut Street.
Housing Visions has the potential to have a significant positive impact for the city, Oneonta Code Enforcement Officer Robert Chiappisi said, and the Oneonta Housing Task Force should be applauded for its efforts.
The number of vacant residential properties is in the low 90s, according to Chiappisi, and about 50 vacant homes are of concern because they are at some level of foreclosure. The city had about 40 vacant homes when he joined the city in 2009, he said.
Issues with the vacant and abandoned homes include property maintenance, such as tall grass, illegal dumping, vandalism and security concerns, Chiappisi said. Mortgage companies have increased efforts to work with municipalities to address the property maintenance issues through a company called Compliance Connections, he said.
On Tuesday night, Ben Lockwood, director of development at Housing Visions, reviewed the project and time line before a regularly scheduled Common Council meeting at City Hall. The organization’s corporate offices are in Syracuse.
The Oneonta project will be funded primarily from private equity raised by an investor from the awarding of low-income housing tax credits through the state Homes & Community Renewal office, the summary said.
Housing Visions anticipates receiving an equity commitment from Key Community Development Corp. for the housing tax credits, the summary said. The corporation provides financing for a range of tax-credit and community and economic development projects, according to the KeyBank website.
This year, the city of Oneonta received a state award of $400,000 through the Mohawk Valley Regional Economic Development Council for the Housing Visions project. That amount, plus $300,000 expected to be returned to the city next year in connection with the Bresee’s Redevelopment Project, will be granted to Housing Visions to buy properties, Oneonta Mayor Dick Miller said Tuesday.
Miller also thanked the city’s Housing Task Force at the meeting.
According to a timetable presented by Lockwood, property acquisitions would be in the spring with zoning and planning reviews by the city as needed in the summer. Financing requests to the Homes & Community Renewal would be submitted in the fall, with awards announced in spring 2015.
Construction would start in autumn 2015, with project completion targeted for fall and winter 2016, with leasing in summer and winter 2016, the plan said.
Lockwood said Housing Visions considered Oneonta about five years ago for possible projects but “nothing came out of it.” However, this spring, Gary Herzig, a Housing Task Force member, contacted the organization to say the panel wanted to “do something.”
In March, the task force, in a “Comprehensive Housing Plan” document, said issues to be addressed included housing stock not being maintained, lack of affordable rentals, community and government obstacles to housing initiatives and a lack of funding to support housing projects.
“Vacant floors in downtown buildings and vacant houses in residential neighborhoods are a hazard to the safety of city residents, have a blighting effect on neighborhoods and are a serious risk to neighborhood properties,” the summary said. Exploring a partnership with Housing Visions was among recommendations made by the task force.
Oneonta Housing Task Force members included Ruth Allen, Herzig, Peter Friedman, Ed May, Barbara Roberts, Kurt Schulte and Laurie Zimniewicz, the report said. Common Council members from the Community Improvement Committee, Robert Brzozowski of the Seventh Ward and David Rissberger of the Third Ward, served as liaison representatives.
On Tuesday night, Lockwood reviewed projects in other communities and explained how Congress-approved low-income tax credits have been inducements for development during the past 30 years.
Lockwood said the Oneonta project will involve buying three to eight properties, depending on acquisition options. Lockwood said a major impediment to the Oneonta project is the housing foreclosure crisis. Some owners have walked away from homes, he said, and cannot be identified.
Chip Holmes, Eighth Ward member of the Common Council and a financial adviser, said Tuesday night that, in such situations, banks don’t realize they own the properties, which are managed by servicing companies, and purchase offers are rejected. The Housing Task Force’s suggestion for a city-imposed “vacant building fee” was a “great idea.”
Vacant properties draw on municipal resources, such as police patrols and code enforcement services, city officials said.
“Revitalization efforts will diminish crime and encourage area resident and businesses to invest more resources into the neighborhood,” the Housing Visions document said. After the project is operational, at least two full-time employment positions will be created locally, according to the plan.
The project will stimulate the area economy by hiring local subcontractors, vendors and laborers, the plan said.
Housing Visions has worked on projects in nine cities across the state with a total investment of more than $230 million and a portfolio of 300 buildings with 1,036 units of quality, affordable housing, and Lockwood shared photographs of properties before, during and after renovations.
“I feel really lucky to have you here,” Michael Lynch, Fourth Ward member of the Common Council, told Lockwood on Tuesday.