A group of uptown Albany residents called StopTheStories has called for a halt (or greater oversight) of the ongoing development in their neighborhoods, and a reduction in the height of new buildings. They state that the City — and the Planning Board in particular — is not following its own regulations, that these development will drastically change the character of their neighborhoods, and that they will put stress on the City’s infrastructure. To make themselves heard, StopTheStories will be rallying before the Monday City Council meeting. In response, Walkable Albany — led by founder Andrew Neidhardt — will be staging a counter-rally to champion appropriate development as a way to create walkable neighborhoods.
This brouhaha has spurred ongoing vigorous — and at times contentious — discussion of the city’s future. Ahead of Monday’s City Council rallies, I wanted to summarize (as briefly as possible) some of the better responses to concerns that have appeared in various forums. These are all complex issues and, as such, these are hardly comprehensive answers. I nonetheless hope that, whether you are deeply concerned or cautiously optimistic (as I am) about the building boom, I hope you find the below responses to be a starting point for discussion. I’ve included sources where readily available. Feel free to comment below or on the Albany Notes Facebook Page.
- Housing demand: How can all of these new units be filled? Where are the people coming from who will fill them? Albany may have a strong rental market, but is it that strong?
- Affordability: What about those seeking affordable housing in Albany? Are these new apartment buildings going to address that issue?
- Sewer/water infrastructure: Won’t this development boom further strain the city’s already strained water and sewer infrastructure?
- Tax burden: Will these developments help alleviate or increase the already heavy tax burden on city residents?
- Traffic: Won’t these developments exacerbate traffic?
How can all of these new units be filled? Where are these people coming from? Does Albany really have that strong a housing market?
There is a very strong demand for apartments in Albany, which is driving the current development engine. That engine is fueled by a variety of factors —
- A pent-up demand for multi-family (e.g. apartment) housing. Historically, multi-family housing has been a relatively small percentage of the region’s residential development. Since 1990, the percentage of building permits issued for multi-family housing has increased from 14% to more than 50% in 2016. This increase has became more rapid post-Great Recession as the housing market recovered.
- Traditionally, homeownership was a right of passage to adulthood. Now, significantly fewer younger people are choosing to own a home than in previous generations.
- The share of renters in the Capital District is increasing across the board.
- As fewer Millennials are buying homes, the region’s older population may be aging out of theirs and looking for new housing options. The region’s 65+ population will increase from 14% in 2010 to 22% by 2030, representing more than 80,000 more seniors living in our region. This aging population is increasingly looking to downsize and rent.
- There has been relatively slow regional population growth, but continued single-family home development in suburban and rural areas from 1995-2015. During that period, land was developed at a rate of five times the population growth. As the suburbs grew, local cities were shrinking or stagnant.
- Albany may be playing catch up to neighboring localities. Between 2007 and 2016, more multifamily building permits were issued in Halfmoon than Albany, and the suburban and more rural localities continue to account for a significant number of multi-family building permits issued.
- And lastly, the region’s residential development is booming along the I-87 corridor, centered just north of Albany in Saratoga County, which may be contributing to the demand.
The points listed above pertain to the Capital Region specifically, but the area is not unique in experiencing these trends — home buying has slowed, people are moving to cities, and more people are eschewing home ownership across the country.
Information based on CDRPC 2019 Density and Development Report.
What about affordability? What happens to those seeking affordable housing in Albany? Are these developments going to address that issue?
Provision of affordable housing is a major issue. The city has lost a major portion of its affordable — and often historic — housing stock over the past 50 years due to fires, absentee/apathetic landlords (and inadequate City intervention), and complex historical land-use trends such as redlining, white flight, urban renewal and the effects of the Great Recession. While the many ongoing or proposed apartments are or will be meeting the demand for additional middle- and upper-income multi-family housing, it is highly unlikely that most of these will meet the city’s need for lower-income housing. Without action, the city’s affordable housing problem is only going to get worse.
In the region, the share of homeowners who spend more than 30% of their income on housing is going down, yet the share of renters spending more than 30% of their income on rent is going up. Meanwhile, median household incomes are struggling to keep pace with inflation and, in the region’s minority communities, they are trending down. While single-family housing remains relatively affordable, rents continue to rise due to the growing demand. Even as supply of middle-income and upper-tier apartments grows (potentially stabilizing rents at those levels) rents for previously affordable units may creep upwards due to the city’s continuing lack of affordable housing. In combination with falling household incomes, this has the potential to exacerbate housing woes, especially in minority communities.
Won’t this development boom further strain the City’s already strained water and sewer infrastructure?
The city’s populace grows by about 70% during weekdays as commuters flood into work. New residents using that infrastructure during the evenings/night will not be straining that infrastructure beyond what it would already be experiencing during weekday work hours. Furthermore, the City is making major investments to improve its water and sewer infrastructure and limit runoff from new developments. According to a recent Times-Union article:
Each new development’s stormwater runoff can be no more than what would come from the site undeveloped during a 10-year storm, Albany Water Department Commissioner Joseph Coffey said. That means each project is doing “significant” stormwater detention, meanwhile the city continues to invest millions in stormwater management efforts from diversion and detention to new technology for monitoring and management, he said.
“We have requirements that we have to meet with best management projects as part of our Combined Sewer Overflow permit, and we’re meeting those,” Coffey said. “They are factored into our reviews of every one of those projects, and if they can’t be done, we can’t approve the project.”
More information on water quality, flow, and regional water infrastructure capacity is available at the Albany CSO Pool Communities Corporation.
Will these developments help alleviate or will they increase the already heavy tax burden on City residents?
When any private individual or corporation purchases a vacant lot in Albany, they are subject to a tax based upon the assessed value of the land. If the owner chooses to improve that land (by building a house or an apartment building), then they become subject to taxes based upon the value of those improvements. In order to incentivize large, multi-million dollar projects, municipalities can offer tax reductions based on only the improvements. Many of Albany’s new developments are receiving such incentives from the City or Albany County, often in the form of PILOTs (payments-in-lieu-of-taxes). These tax breaks are substantial for the first couple years, but are gradually reduced (ofter over a decade) until the owner is paying the full assessed value of the land and improvements.
From the City’s perspective, if there’s no investment, then there’s no increase in value, and no gradually increasing revenue from the property. It’s akin to delaying a reassessment for a homeowner that adds a new bathroom. No money is lost, but the City is making an investment with the certainty the property will generate more and more each year than the site it will replace.
Won’t these new residents exacerbate traffic woes?
Denser development in Capital Region cities should shift a greater share of the region’s population growth to urban cores. This will moderate the increase of vehicles on city arteries, since urban residents are more likely to take alternative transportation because they:
- have easier access to the necessary infrastructure (i.e. buses, bike lanes, complete sidewalks),
- are more likely to live in close proximity to their workplace than their counterparts in the suburbs,
- find that using alternative transportation is less expensive than a personal vehicle, and
- find that alternative transportation is often as efficient (or more efficient) at short distances in urban areas than a personal vehicle.
Shifting toward greater urban density and better alternative transportation infrastructure (i.e. better sidewalks, more and better bike lanes, quicker bus systems) will put the city’s limited available land to a more economical and environmentally sustainable use, but may come at the expense of car convenience.