Jamestown Revitalization Studies Should Not Be Ignored By Officials

My wife and I choose to live in Jamestown. We happily raise our children here and enjoy being close to our family and friends. Jamestown has a rich history and many academic opportunities, cultural-diversity, good businesses and people. It perplexes me that data-driven studies performed by organizations dedicated to revitalizing our city are ignored. When it comes to making big decisions that change the landscape of our city, some of our elected city officials who can deny a permit for building a garage throw up their hands to elude control when wealthy anonymous investors want to build a large structure that is not conductive to the rest of the area. Why do studies at all if their well-researched advice is ignored? Additionally, these wealthy investors only pay a fraction of the property tax rate. A new $10 million building should pay over $500,000 in city, county and school taxes. Last year Citizen’s Opportunity for Development and Equality (CODE) paid $80,000. Meanwhile, the remainder of the property owners paid a much higher rate of 5.215 percent. That’s $5,215.00 per $100,000. Perhaps if CODE paid the same tax rate on their seventeen properties as other landlords, the city would not be annexing the Jamestown Board of Public Utilities’ Dow Street substation from our neighboring town for additional tax revenue. Apparently, what is best for the CODE investors trumps what is best for our city.

Generating discussions that are fact based and data driven is my primary goal when researching and publishing articles. Since my last article, “Low-Income Households In High-Crime Area Spells Disaster,” I have had the opportunity to speak with several of our local leaders from both public and private sectors. I would like to thank everyone who has given me insight into some of the complexities of Jamestown politics and policies. Throughout my conversations, it became clear that quality versus quantity is the ideological difference when discussing the Jamestown housing market. One specific point that everyone agreed on was that Jamestown has a surplus of housing and rental properties.

According to The Post-Journal, Charni Sochet, from the State Homes and Community Renewal, stated “Citizen’s Opportunity for Development & Equality Inc. and The NRP Group did not receive an award in this year’s unified funding round, but will have the opportunity to work with the state agency to address technical deficiencies in its application and reapply next year for funding.” Patrick Morris, CODE executive director also expressed his “gratitude to all of the elected officials and city staff who have so strongly supported this redevelopment.” Apparently, our elected officials and CODE are determined to continually reapply for funding until they secure it. Regardless of the future funding of this project, we need to examine the overall housing market in Jamestown and take a proactive data-driven approach to improve it.

With reports such as the CZB Neighborhood Study, that I strongly encourage everyone to read (http://www.gebbie.org/pdfs/ Final–Report-neighborhood–plan.pdf) and the city’s revitalization report that states: “The ultimate solution to the over-supply challenge must start with an effort to control and reduce the development of additional unwarranted units, and the reinvestment into the rehabilitation of existing properties coupled with the expansion of local economic and employment opportunities” our local political leaders have little choice but to agree that our housing market is a low-cost, low-demand market with a surplus of housing. However, my discussion with council President Greg Rabb, who agreed the city has a housing surplus, is in favor of new developments because, in his opinion, “the quality of a large portion of the rental properties within the city are in deplorable condition.” He said “the proposed project Jackson Springs would allow residents of our city to have better housing options than they currently do and the neighbors are clearly in support of it.”

It’s easy to empathize with his reasoning. As I travel through the city, I regularly see properties that need maintenance and repair. Sometimes I’m even amazed certain properties are still standing. It’s certainly understandable why the residents of Spring Street support this project as several of the properties on Spring Street have been condemned. I would want them removed too. Actually, I wish they were maintained the last 10 years and never fell into disrepair. Do Spring Street residents support the project because they are being lead to believe that the condemned housing on Spring Street will only be removed if the project moves forward? Would a community garden or green space be better for the neighborhood? What is the best data-driven action our elected leaders should take that will benefit all of the city residents for the long term?

Let’s learn from the past. Did adding new net housing to our city help? Look back at the Apple Yard Terrace Project. “In 2006, demolition was already happening to make way for Appleyard Terrace, Jamestown’s latest urban housing development. This project would replace houses that have multiple defects and an overall aura of blight.” The original $8 million project consisted of the demolition of two single family homes and new construction of two three-story elevator buildings containing 35 units of low income affordable housing.

The Apple Yard Terrace Project did not help the housing market in Jamestown or stabilize a main arterial in the city. City homeowners are still choosing to leave the city and invest in properties in more stable markets that offer a better return on investment. Jamestown property appreciation rates fell 4.2 percent between 2011 and 2016. “An evaluation of the city’s taxable real estate since 2007 alone crystalizes the impact of this hard-to-reverse process. Between 2007 and 2015, the value of taxable property in Jamestown fell slightly in current dollars from $672 million to $665 million. But if the tax base had merely kept pace with inflation, its value would have climbed to $768 million by 2015 — a level that would have meant $2.5 million in extra revenue. What can $2.5 million pay for? Twenty or more police officers, 100 vacant and blighted home demolitions, 5 miles of reconstructed sidewalks, strategic acquisition and rehab of 15 or more troubled houses…” Increasing the net housing did not add stability to the community or its neighborhoods. Is the plan to replace all the substandard multifamily homes with large complexes that are owned by absentee anonymous investors who have HUD checks directly deposited into their bank accounts? When does it stop?

Can the supply and demand equilibrium create stability and increase both the quality and desirability of the dwellings within the city while making it financially advantageous for property owners to invest? People are moving out of the city to more attractive and financially stable markets. We need to create programs that aid owner occupied homes. Creating an environment where owners financially benefit from maintaining and investing in their homes is the key. The Block Challenge is a great example of a program helping homeowners maintain their property. The city needs to support programs of this type and help them expand and grow. I know by working together, we can come up with similar programs for homeowners and landlords. We have an oversupply of housing. Let’s work towards making our oversupply more desirable by ensuring properties are kept in the best condition possible.

Owner-occupied housing is not necessarily the only approach that will add value to our market. Although owner-occupied homes add the greatest market stability, investment properties can add value if they are managed well. “The goal, therefore, is not to limit the flow of investment capital…but rather to develop strategies that can help ensure that these investors contribute to the stock of high-quality housing in the neighborhood.” Bradmar Village and Crestline Villa are both examples of well-maintained investment properties that provide a sense of community, are located in nice neighborhoods and look appealing. If our government develops financial programs that encourage homeowners and responsible investors to buy, rehabilitate and maintain neglected properties more potential investors will be willing to invest and build single family homes that assimilate the surrounding neighborhood homes. We need the reward for investing to be greater than the risk. Investors, renters and the city all need to benefit. Many investors find it difficult to continue to maintain their properties because of the low standards and care by some renters. The city must support local investors and work with them to ensure properties are being well cared for by the people who occupy them. Being a landlord in the city is becoming too great of a financial risk. Council and our housing committee need to work with them to develop strategies that will create quality housing that benefits both renters and investors.

Regardless of the Jackson Spring outcome, if we continue down the same path as the last 20 years, we are going to get the same results. Jamestown has many nice neighborhoods and beautiful homes with historical architecture. Help preserve properties and increase the demand for housing in the city. The city council and mayor have the authority to restrict building of multifamily complexes and develop and publicize programs that support home ownership. We elected them to manage our community resources and prevent the erosion of property values and increase the desirability of Jamestown.

I have spoken to several of our council representatives and they all really want what is best for our city. Providing them with your views and expressing any concerns you have regarding Jamestown’s housing market is essential. Jamestown’s government needs to focus on three things: Public safety and crime control, education, and economic stability and growth; with particular attention to our housing market and business development that can utilize our labor force. How many potential home buyers look at our high property tax rate, high crime rate and declining infrastructure and decide not to purchase property or move into the city? Your city council needs your opinions and help, please call or write them. The strength of our city is in the people willing to work towards solutions together; let’s make responsible revitalization a priority.

Michael D. Laurin is a Jamestown resident and homeowner.