March 28, 2016

The Place We Call Home (Part Two)

In Sunday's post, I referenced the idea that I've floated a couple of times, that we should have a 'Parade of Homes' in Syracuse, to generate interest for people moving to city neighborhoods like the one we live in, or that our friends and family who still live in the city enjoy.

One thing Syracuse is doing, through the Greater Syracuse Land Bank, is getting tax delinquent houses out of the hands of people who cannot or will not pay the taxes or maintain the properties, and get them into the hands of people who will. Houses that are too far gone are demolished, which leaves a hole in the neighborhood, to be sure - but the hole in the neighborhood is better than a crack house, or an arson target, or a long-term blight that pulls down all of the other houses.

We live next door to a Land Bank success story. A few years back, a couple bought the empty house next door to us with the intention of fixing it up; you can read how that quickly went south and then picked up, and got better. And finally, last fall, the Land Bank and Home Headquarters, and my new friend Ray you met in those blog posts, gave us a gift: the house, completely refurbished - no, transformed is the better word - was sold for $95,000 to a wonderful family.

We got lucky with the house next door, I know, and I'm very aware that everyone doesn't have the same outcome. There's simply not enough money to go around to give every neighborhood, the help it deserves.

Enter Tim Rudd, the newest guest columnist for the Post Standard. He's local; according to his bio, he graduated from Henninger and the Maxwell School at SU, and currently works in the social research field.

In a thoughtful commentary a couple of weeks ago, he noted that the Land Bank cannot on its own handle the problem of Syracuse's tax delinquent properties, because the problem is bigger than that:
As properties become tax delinquent, they often become rundown and less valuable. Thus there is often a gap between the actual and assessed value of properties taken by a land bank. To date, the land bank has not taken possession of all the delinquent properties that the city will eventually seize. This means, to the extent that assessments overstate actual value, downward assessments will continue and less property value will remain to support existing services, at least in the short term. A substantial long-term decrease in total assessed value could hurt the city's credit rating, making its debt larger compared to total property value. In order to protect the city's ability to make investments in our future, it is critical that government leaders expand and strengthen their efforts to stabilize and grow the property tax base. 
The other danger of a continued downward trend in total assessed value is that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Think about it: would you want to be the person to save the last house on the block? Or the next to last house on the block? Wouldn't it be better to get in when, say, the street has at least a 50/50 chance of survival?

How do we do that?
Specifically, government should create financial incentives for individuals, similar to those provided to large developers, to attract and retain residents who will pay taxes for many years. These incentives should economically develop city residents (emphasis added).
Economically develop residents?  Huh?

Treating our neighborhood problem as an economic development problem rather than as a property tax or property management problem, is a really interesting approach. And, it's broader than my Parade plan; where I looked for a neighborhood solution, Rudd looks at an individual homeowner solution. I really like his idea. He suggests we provide the same type of assistance to residents as we do to companies:
Individuals who will live in a house should get preferential purchase prices, instant access to financing, and a structured tax agreement (essentially a payment in lieu of taxes, or PILOT) where some fraction of their taxes pay for the initial investment in their property. These incentives should be promoted beyond Syracuse in hope that they will attract new residents. 
And why not?  The city needs residents, desperately, and it needs owner-occupied houses.  It needs to return to being more than just hipster downtown. We need to expand the energy and growth (and occupancy rates) of downtown out into our neighborhoods, and by Jove, if we have to incent people to come and play with us, why not?

If they'ree willing to continue subsidizing profitable companies in their move from one part of the county to another, or offering huge tax breaks to private developers who may or may not keep their commitments for development and job creation, our elected officials should certainly consider Rudd's suggestion.

Because in the end, we can spend all the money in the world on fancy projects and pretty buildings, but without people, what's the point?