Well, the vote on the SPA Housing Ordinance has been put off yet again following the full throated concerns expressed by the developers and bankers at the workshop on Tuesday, June 13. The ordinance would require that in residential developments of 10 or more units, 20 percent of the units for sale or rent be dedicated as affordable to households of moderate or low income.
However you may feel about this ordinance, the way this process has unfolded keeps getting more and more depressing as an example of how easily certain people with power get special treatment.
For those of us who regularly observe the operation of the City Council, the events of the last month regarding this issue have been anything but usual. Bear in mind that the proponents of this proposal have been engaging the essential players of this drama going back practically a year. The draft was written by a nationally recognized consultant who specializes in affordable housing. He has drawn on the experience of communities who have drafted similar legislation across the country. The proponents of the ordinance have had meetings with developers like Sonny Bonacio and with local banks. There have also been numerous meetings with members of the City Council. This was no surprise proposal suddenly dropped on the city. There was ample notice of public hearings where both proponents and opponents addressed the Council. Normal procedure and I do mean normal procedure, is that the Council then votes on the proposal.
Forget that. Suddenly the members of the Council discovered that there are all these critical questions unanswered and the gears of government jammed to a halt. Commissioner Madigan is quoted at the last workshop as follows:
“The density bonus, the zoning language, pilots, deed language, foreclosure and sunset clause and that’s just off the top of my head. And then I do think we are there. It’s just going to take a little more time to get there.”
I do not question that the items she referenced are controversial or that members of the Council may be uninformed on these issues. Based on the chatter around the table it was clear that at least John Franck and Skip Scirocco shared her concerns. My question is why weren’t these issues raised earlier in the process.
I am also skeptical that this can all be worked out with just a little more time. It was clear that for all the professions of some of the players about their desire to make this work, the solutions to the problems the developers and bankers raised with the proposed ordinance will not be fixed with just a few tweaks. John Witt was the most direct. According to the Times Union:
“Developer John Witt said he can’t make it happen.
‘I like the idea of more units, but the lowest cost we could get it to would be about $2,500 a month with mortgage, insurance, taxes, utilities,’ Witt said. ‘That’s at a mortgage rate of 4.1 percent and if the land is sold at a cost of zero.’
Witt said his margins are only 5 percent and that he doesn’t have the money to invest in affordable units.”
So now there is no date for a vote and somehow the objections by the bankers and developers are going to be worked out “sometime” in the future.
Let me be clear, I am sufficiently ignorant regarding the ordinance that I have no idea whether some or, for that matter, all of the concerns scattered on the Council table by the opponents are valid.
I do, however, have certain basic insights into the players in all of this. I know that the bankers and developers are skilled people who have survived because they work very hard at maximizing the profit margin of their projects. This is not a criticism of them. This is the nature of what it takes to succeed.
I have noted on this blog repeatedly that I am something of a fan of Sonny Bonacio who is a most likable fellow when he turns on the charm. I love his energy and I think he has done a lot across the capital district to create a variety of beneficial projects. Caffe Lena immediately comes to mind, and he is doing some creative things in Troy which can use as much help as it can get.
I do, however, also remember that when he wanted to convert Moore Hall into micro apartments he was adamant before the Zoning Board of Appeals that taking down the building and replacing it with something more acceptable to the neighborhood was not financially feasible. Of course, it turned out that it was feasible and the new condos for that site are under construction as I write this posting.
I seriously question the ability of the Council members to assess the arguments and changes that will be forward by those objecting to the ordinance. I am particularly concerned that this will all be done at private meetings with individual Council members which in itself is not wrong but which will cast a serious cloud on whatever emerges (if something actually finally emerges).
I would offer a way forward that I think would be beneficial to both the Council and the public. Tell the opponents that they need to sit down with the proponents of the ordinance and try to work it out with them. In the event that they cannot come to an agreement, ask the opponents to draft their proposed changes and ask the proponents to draft a position paper that lays out their problems with the changes and how the proponents’ proposal addresses the basic concerns raised by the opponents.
The Council could then take whatever action they deemed appropriate and the public would be in a position to assess the outcome. This would meet that badly overused term called transparency.
It is my hope that the Mayor and Council would support this approach.