By Kitty McCullough
* This is a response to RUPCO’s ‘Citizen Opinion’ submission “Why an Affordable and Mixed Income Housing Project Makes Sense”
Thank you to RUPCO for responding to my comments about their proposed project for the bowling alley site in Kingston. I welcome the dialogue. At the same time, I wish the tone of the response were less dismissive of those of us asking for clarification about the project and seeking more informed public engagement in planning Midtown’s future. Disparaging our attempts to understand the project won’t move our community toward clarity and effective public engagement.
In its current iteration, the draft Comprehensive Plan lacks a cohesive vision and plan for Midtown, leaving the community unprepared to evaluate projects such as the one proposed for the bowling alley site. Ultimately, RUPCO would tap nearly $40 million in public funding and tax incentives available to support revitalization ($18.9 million for the Lace Mill plus $20 million for the bowling alley site) and that would take us a long way toward RUPCO’s vision for Midtown. Is it the community’s vision? We can’t say whether the vision RUPCO’s projects pursue aligns with a community vision, because we haven’t had the opportunity to articulate a shared community vision. Key voices in our community have expressed discomfort with that and others have yet to be engaged in the process, particularly those living in the immediate neighborhoods.
RUPCO’s response characterizes me as “resistant to change” and “naive” about how funding for affordable housing works. I don’t think anyone looks at Midtown without seeing that change is needed. The questions remain: What kind of change? Who decides? What projects can best bring about equitable and sustainable change?
So-called “goals, objectives and strategies” from Kingston’s draft Comprehensive Plan are cited to support RUPCO’s proposed project. This continues to beg the question in a number of ways:
• The vision and recommendations for Midtown in the Comp Plan draft lack an overall strategy that can lead to sustainable and equitable Midtown revitalization.
• Informed public engagement is the sine qua non of effective comprehensive planning, and — as has been widely decried — such engagement was missing from the preparation of the draft plan’s Midtown section.
• The bowling alley project may not be the best way to meet community goals and objectives captured in the Comp Plan or elsewhere and it is certainly not the only way to do so.
The community is asking for help “understanding how funding for these types of programs works.” Giving us a link to a 42-page government publication isn’t an effective way to help us onto the learning curve. There is a lot of discussion in national policy circles about how public funding for housing can help institutionalize, sidestep and/or ghetto-ize poverty. We don’t want that to happen here. Proactive communities have moved on from “silver bullet” expectations to look for more nuanced solutions carefully matched to local needs. Some have even found ways that integrate public funding programs for housing to help create those more nuanced solutions. We want that here.
RUPCO notes it has awarded $700,000 to 30 families to support affordable homeownership. That’s an average $23,334 per family, compared with $343,636 per rental unit at the Lace Mill. Are we missing some information that would help us see a balance to be achieved by creating another 60 new units on that higher end at the bowling alley site? A $9.2 million project in Savannah, Georgia rehabbed 70 existing homes as affordable rental housing ($131,428 per unit average).
READ: www.preservationnation.org “Housing for All”
In a recent analysis using the “Adjusted Total Development Costs Concept,” the Center for Housing Policy found that acquiring and rehabilitating existing multifamily rental housing may be significantly more cost-effective than new construction.” In comparing a sample of 200 properties, they found that the costs of “new construction were approximately $40,000 to $71,000 (25 to 45 percent) higher per unit than those of acquisition-rehab properties” (CHP, 2014,
READ www.nhc.org “Cost Comparison”
Instead of looking to new solutions, a five-story monolith is proposed that would literally turn its back on Midtown neighborhoods as if they weren’t even there. I worry that those who speak of Kingston as a barbell don’t know that there are neighborhoods there, both “behind” the proposed project and throughout Midtown. Is there a plan to integrate those neighborhoods into the new RUPCO project? We don’t know because the grant deadline doesn’t allow enough time to effectively include the public in such discussion.
RUPCO has been less than fully successful in filling the commercial spaces they have developed in Kingston using revitalization grants and incentives. The building proposed for the bowling alley site will create space for the Center for Creative Education (CCE) and the Hudson Valley Tech Meet Up. Will RUPCO fully subsidize ongoing occupancy for these organizations? CCE was to have space in the Carnegie Learning Center but was unable to meet that commitment, perhaps due to the recession. Would these two organizations have — or be able to develop — the capacity to remain tenants in the new building?
What will RUPCO need to do to ensure these organizations have the necessary capacity? What should we as a community be doing to ensure the capacity of our nonprofits to play their needed role in community and economic development? No time has been made for such questions critical to the success of RUPCOs projects and Kingston’s future.
Kingston has a history of believing in silver bullets. Projects have been proposed as magic solutions all the way back to 1960’s Urban Renewal. In Rondout, a decade-plus hole in the ground marks the spot where a developer was given carte blanche to build a hotel that was supposed to single-handedly create a tourism economy. A string of waterfront properties languish where a single owner dangled the promise of a “Maritime History Park” more nearly a decade ago. Nearby at Tech City in the Town of Ulster, hundreds of thousands of square feet of space that could be generating jobs also languish because their purchase was tied to overly generous property tax provisions. Now we are asked to turn the visioning and planning that Midtown needs over to one organization whose nearly $40 million in affordable housing projects would set the de facto vision for the heart of our city.
Isn’t it due diligence to ask whether the formula deployed for the Lace Mill is enough? Will putting another $20 million into essentially the same formula help ensure Midtown’s successful revitalization — or even the success of the two projects? RUPCO says “everyone deserves a home.” Home is more than the apartment or the building in which one lives. Home also includes — at the very least — the street and the neighborhood where one lives, and access to decent work, food, schools and affordable transportation. Will these major RUPCO projects be able to gain traction and have their projected impact if we aren’t developing parallel, proactive strategies for the streets, neighborhoods, and job opportunities that make up Midtown as a whole?
I, for one, agree that tax incentive programs designed to attract private investment to help us with revitalization are among the best tools we have for community and economic development. However, to claim that the nearly $40 million to develop these projects isn’t public money is to point to a distinction without a difference. We pay taxes to help address shared needs. Some of the taxes collected go to public programs that directly address identified needs (highways, education, streetscape revitalization…). Some of the taxes that could be collected instead stay with private investors for projects that address identified community needs.
It is only diligent for us to make sure that our community’s ability to qualify for both tax funded grants and tax-subsidized investments (which ability is based on the city’s low-income demographics) goes as far as possible towards an equitable, effective, and sustainable revitalization strategy. Of course it is true that, as RUPCO states, “No one project can be the answer for all things,” but many community members are asking whether nearly $40 million could go further toward helping us retrofit the cohesive vision and comprehensive strategies required for effective — and cost-effective — Midtown revitalization.
We are told that moving forward quickly now is critical because the funding source has a very tight deadline. Those of us who spent our careers in the nonprofit sector were already realizing in the 1990s that creating projects to chase grant guidelines was not the best way to meet community needs. “Best practice” grew to mean helping your community articulate its vision for the future, aligning your organization’s mission toward achieving that shared community vision, and then outlining goals, objectives and strategies to work toward the vision. Money that “has already been appropriated for very specific, limited uses” is only right for us if it carries us toward shared community goals.
Our questions are characterized as “a vague disconcert” and a “malaise” (“vague or unfocused feeling”). Dismissing public concern and disparaging individuals who speak up will not build a stronger community nor lead to a shared vision for Midtown that gets everyone pulling in the same direction. How can RUPCO — which has a scale of budget and professional staff that few organizations in our region have — help us ensure a shared vision for equitable and sustainable Midtown revitalization that builds within itself the capacity to succeed?
As our community development corporation, RUPCO could help us inform ourselves, articulate a more complete and cohesive vision, goals and strategies for equitable and sustainable Midtown revitalization, then ensure that public funding leveraged for Midtown projects moves us toward that shared vision. Once we have a well-articulated vision, goals and strategies for Midtown, perhaps the Common Council will help us “retrofit” them into the draft Comprehensive Plan that is only a stack of papers until they adopt it. Then we will have a shared vision by which future proposals may be judged.
Thank you again, to RUPCO for the dialogue and to Kingston Citizens for providing a forum.