This fall, the Geneva City Council withdrew significant investments from the Office of Neighborhood Initiatives. A move to completely end the program, led by Councilor-at-Large Gordon Eddington and backed by Mayor Ron Alcock (who claimed ignorance of the purpose of the entire multi-year operation that he had supported), was narrowly defeated but the damage was largely already done.
Although it has been clear from other discussions that many members of the current City Council are either unwilling or unable to understand the City’s comprehensive plan and the neighborhood revitalization strategy upon which it was built, most people living in Geneva get it: Homes need help, residents need resources, and staff need a strategy.
Cutting resources to the Office of Neighborhood Initiatives — or ONI — is a return to “business as usual,” before the upswing Geneva has experienced in recent years. A return to traditional notions of economic development will meet with as much failure now as they did back when they were last tried — but this Mayor and his voting bloc on the Council seem intent on driving the City straight back into the 1980s.
While that discussion was happening down at the Council meeting, Alan Mallach — one of the foremost experts on housing, economic development, and neighborhood revitalization (with a special focus on rust belt cities) — was hosting a seminar for a national policy-making institute. You might not remember Alan Mallach, but he remembers Geneva. He spent time here as part of the consultant team that researched, authored, and presented Geneva’s Neighborhood Improvement Strategy.
Mallach’s work provided several insights that Councilor Paul D’Amico referred to in a 2009 guest appearance in this paper that he and I jointly authored (how’s that for bipartisanship?). Yet Councilor D’Amico seems to have changed his mind, shifting into the same “tough on taxes” talking points that seem to rear their ugly heads every election cycle. Those talking points, which rile up anger but never translate into sensible public policy, might help people get elected, but they don’t help the people.
Mallach’s seminar focused on the detrimental effects of vacant, underutilized, and under-maintained properties on the quality of life of people living next to, or near, such properties. It’s a story Geneva (and many Finger Lakes communities) knows all too well. There are a lot of old houses around. Old does not mean bad — in fact, old homes are often the best homes in terms of architecture, character, and layout. But old homes need maintenance and too often such homes are owned by people who cannot or will not do the work to keep them up. Lots of cities take a hands-off approach to housing. Under the banner of “property rights,” they side with landlords who carve older, larger homes into multiple apartments because the landlords claim they can’t “make the house work” without several rental payments. Yet when the rent comes in, it doesn’t go to sprucing the place up, but rather to sprucing up the pocketbooks of these investor-owners.
If housing (particularly housing for low-income people) is being run as a business, then is it okay for Council to let it operate as an almost entirely unregulated business? A vote “no” on the ONI was a “yes” vote to a free-for-all. I’m not going to say that ONI was the solution to our problems, but it was certainly a major piece in the puzzle. Engaging residents is important not just for its civic benefits (musical porches, plant swaps, Gulvin Park redesign, the great Brook Street pumpkin roll) but also for identifying and understanding the ingredients that are causing certain properties to go sour.
By understanding the needs of the community, strategies can be adopted to meet those needs. For instance, we often say that the “solution” to high-density rental is to increase homeownership. But do we really think the best solution for a huge house on Genesee Street is to give it to a young family that doesn’t have the time, energy, or money to keep up with what it needs?
Those “simple” solutions are sometimes the worst ones, but they are the kinds of ideas that a part-time Mayor and City Council might continue to suggest when they stop investing in full-time staff who can think critically, holistically, and sensibly about what is going to work and what is destined for failure.
Unfortunately, this Council feels like taking its chances on losing all the forward momentum, and we’ll be paying for that long after their election time “tax talk” ends.