The issue of blight in Binghamton New York has been a long term issue that we have been following for years. We first wrote on the subject in part in 2009. That was followed up in 2011 with a more in depth article Blight indeed. During the 2013 Binghamton Mayor's race, we worked on the issue via our political consulting arm. Which brings us to 2014 and this article.
On June 6, 2014, Binghamton Mayor Rich David was holding an interview with the local press in front of 47 North Street - one of many blighted buildings throughout the city. M V Consulting president Michael Vass spoke with Mayor David at the event, and requested an interview to discuss the plans to address the blight and other issues facing Binghamton. Mayor David agreed.
At this point we must pause to clarify our history. As always, we seek to be fair and impartial in every interview we have had with an elected official. We have made every effort to quote in context and provide unedited interviews. Thus, when elected officials refuse to answer a question, or stonewall their response, we must ask the question why? What have we asked that the elected official does not want the public to know?
With that said, we have made five attempts via email and phone messages to the Office of the Mayor of Binghamton, from June until July 23, 2014 - all but the last attempt receiving no response. Which we felt was odd, not only because we have had an on-going relationship with the Office of the Mayor in the past, but also because Mayor David has been aware of our work, and Mr. Vass personally, before he even announced a desire to run for Mayor in 2013.
Still, we did receive a response in our fifth request for an interview. Jared M. Kraham Executive Assistant to the Mayor asked us to present our questions as a FOIA request to the City of Binghamton. In years of interviews and quotes with a majority of elected officials in the Southern Tier, we have never been asked to make a FOIA request instead of an interview, but we complied with the request.
On July 24, 2014, we sent a FOIA request to Fredrick Grisel of the Binghamton Office of Building Construction & Code Enforcement. The following questions were asked:
- Do you know, or can you provide the source which contains, the number of abandoned and/or blighted buildings in Binghamton as of Jan 1, 2014?
- Can you provide a list of the top 10 most cited and/or most public hazard buildings as of that same date?
- Are you aware of the strategy/reasoning why the buildings demolished in July 2014 were primarily located in the 4th city council district?
On the same day a FOIA request was sent the City FOIA webpage asking the following:
- Was the grant a Neighborhood Stabilization Program (NSP) or a Section 108 loan?
- What are the terms of the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) grant?
- What is the total of the CDBG grant(s), and how are any funds not used for the demolition of buildings being allocated?
The Office of Building Construction & Code Enforcement responded on July 29th that 171 properties registered as vacant exist in the City at this time. They could provide no other answer to any of our questions. Code Enforcement did forward our questions to the Deputy City Clerk, Jeremy Pelletier, who provided us with a link to the City of Binghamton budget, and cited the relevant sections to our questions (page 185). We did not receive a response from Mr. Kraham or the City as of this being published.
Thus what we know is that the City of Binghamton has no idea of how many blighted buildings exist, nor the severity of disrepair of the vacant buildings the City is aware of. Code Enforcement has been given no strategy about demolished building, or what will replace them.
In addition we know that the Office of the Mayor, while very happy to hold press conferences about the intent to address the blight, is unwilling apparently to answer any question about how the blight will in fact be resolved. Further, it appears that the Office of the Mayor is acting without a short- or long-term plan in this matter (which is required by the CDBG grants). Lastly, it appears that the Office of the Mayor is reluctant to share how it is planning to spend funds received to address the blight.
It's a troubling revelation. We can begin to see why our request for interview has been avoided. But that has not stopped our quest for answers.
What we have determined is that of the $1.9 million in CDBG funding that the City received, $200,000 was dedicated to demolition of blight buildings. After demolishing 8 buildings, almost all of which were located in the 4th City Council District, almost $40,000 remains unused. The final 20% could have been used to demolish two more buildings, but it wasn't and there is no indication where that money has gone.
We cannot determined at this time if the funds allocated were a loan to the City, or a grant. If this is a loan, the terms of repayment are unclear. If a grant (such as the NSP) then a requirement is building low- and middle-income housing, or other items to benefit those in that income bracket. What fulfills the term of "benefit" is unclear, even after requesting and receiving information from Dept. of Housing and Urban Development (HUD):
Our question to HUD: "Neighborhood Stabilization Program (NSP) was established for the purpose of stabilizing communities that have suffered from foreclosures and abandonment." - what comprises stabilizing?
Response from Shantae Goodloe, HUD Public Affairs: Neighborhood stabilization is a function of restoring a functioning, vital market. NSP funding helps communities to purchase foreclosed homes and to either rehabilitate them or tear them down. [A link to the NSP page on the HUD website was provided as well.]
We must note that there are a few curious actions that have occurred, or failed to occur. Our investigation has raised the following questions:
- In all forms, CDBG funding allows for the demolition of blighted buildings. Theoretically any part of the $1.9 million of CDBG funds in the City budget could be used for the purpose of demolition. Given that fact, why was just $200,000 allocated when there is a need in 171 buildings?
- Considering that the majority of the buildings are located in the 4th City Council District, why were these buildings selected for demolition? Especially since the City is unaware of which buildings are the biggest public safety threats.
- Given the location of the majority of the demolished buildings, and the subsequent announcement of a Northside grocery store, were these buildings selected because of the imminent plan for the store without regard for public safety or other concerns?
- Also, given the level of development, was the grocery store part of the required "benefit" that allows CDBG funding?
- Since up to 30% of CDBG funding can be used for other purposes, were any funds used to enable the Northside grocery store deal?
- Finally, with newly vacant lots available to the City, what plans have been made for those plots? Will this be land used to create low-income housing owned by the City or private individuals? Will the land be sold to the highest bidder or the well connected?
Considering that the news of the grocery store and plaza development - a deal that had been in the wind since 2006 - will likely increase property values significantly in that area, who owns that land is a major question. At the same time, since the Northside of Binghamton is traditionally not a major hot spot for Binghamton University students, apartments in that area can be lucrative year-round from native residents. Thus who the City is giving preference to (if any preference) and how is that being decided is a serious issue.
Over all we are not saying that the demolition of blight buildings is bad. In fact we cheer this action. But, at the same time we must ask why the Office of the Mayor would retract an interview agreed to by Mayor David directly? We must ask what plan is in place, as is required by the CDBG funding, and how is that plan being executed? We need to know how much funding is being diverted to other programs, and what those programs are. Finally, we need to know that there is no favoritism occurring as changes are happening across the landscape of Binghamton.
These are all questions that we would like the Office of the Mayor to answer. Preferably in an interview. But it would seem this administration would prefer FOIA requests; which we are equally happy to make as that provides us more questions to ask and have answered. Eventually.
**Update - 8/8/14
Shantae Goodloe of HUD Public Affairs contacted us after the publication of this article to provide more detailed responses to our initial questions about the CDBG grants and terms. We have provided a copy of the questions and updated response at Department of Housing and Urban Development updates response to M V Consulting