Thanks to the unprecedented infusion of federal recovery dollars, the state’s budget approved in April is loaded with massive, one-time investments. Some have attracted critical media attention (Bills stadium deal, Exhibit A), while some have escaped the spotlight. One of those hidden gems is a $250 million allocation to the Restore NY program, which has been described by Republican and Democratic mayors over the years as one of the most effective state-local partnerships in decades.
The Restore NY Program was first launched in 2006 and designed specifically to help communities tackle vacant and abandoned properties particularly in urban centers and historically disinvested neighborhoods. This surprising but incredible quarter billion allocation represents another unprecedented opportunity for local governments to address what is a top priority in virtually every community across the state: quality, affordable housing.
With the first round of $100 million in competitive funding to be announced in July, and the remaining $150 million to be announced in October, there is an urgent need for local officials to foster open, transparent, and inclusive conversations about how to leverage this opportunity to both tackle vacant properties and address affordable housing needs for Binghamton residents.
For inspiration as to what’s possible, current officials and decision-makers need only review local history, and take lessons from the award-winning efforts of Matt Ryan’s administration.
The 2006 launch of the Restore NY program coincided with Matt Ryan’s first year in office as mayor, and state officials promised three years of funding. Each year saw steep annual increases in available funding: $50 million in 2006, $100 million in 2007, and $150 million in 2008.
While most communities identified one large vacant property to tackle, the Ryan administration took a uniquely different approach that won awards, statewide praise, and set a model that other upstate communities would follow for the next couple of years.
Over the first three rounds of funding, Binghamton applied for and won more than $5 million in Restore NY grants, which helped address about 100 vacant and blighted residential structures, most of them pulled from Broome County’s annual tax foreclosure list.
Residents, through the Binghamton Neighborhood Assemblies, helped identify for the administration which long-time eyesores in their neighborhood should be prioritized for demolition.
The administration partnered with local affordable housing nonprofits like First Ward Action Council and Opportunities for Broome, as well as small local contractors, to fully rehab other vacant properties into affordable housing opportunities, both for homeowners and renters.
New single-family homes were constructed on vacant lots, which hadn’t happened in years.
The city’s first-ever energy-efficient, ADA-compliant permanent affordable housing project was completed on Lisle Avenue in partnership with the Binghamton Housing Authority.
Gut rehabs were carried out in partnership with students from Broome Community College to give them in-field experience alongside classroom instruction–and reduce the costs for local contractors.
Binghamton partnered with Metro Interfaith to create the Binghamton Homeownership Academy, which was tasked with building a pipeline of qualified low-income first-time homebuyers while affordable housing developers worked on a pipeline of new homes.
A national expert on deconstruction was brought in to train a couple local demolition contractors how to salvage materials for resale, sending less debris to the county landfill and reducing the costs of demolition to benefit local taxpayers.
Following some demolitions, vacant lots were transformed into community gardens, including the downtown urban farm. At the same time, the administration was providing staff time and nominal financial support to build the capacity of a group of passionate community gardening volunteers who eventually launched VINES, which has been a major asset to neighbors and neighborhoods for more than a decade.
A new partnership with Binghamton’s PricewaterhouseCooper Scholars Program, which became an annual tradition that persists today, transformed an overgrown parking lot at the end of Walnut Street into a playspace and park that continues to serve as a community hub for neighbors.
(A slide deck I developed in the fall of 2013 during my final months as the City’s Director of Planning, Housing, and Community Development and which summarizes our successes of Restore NY–with cool pictures!–can be found here.)
The Ryan administration utilized three rounds of Restore NY funding to not only leverage $6 million more in private and philanthropic investments, but also demonstrate the power of community-driven revitalization that values and prioritizes resident input, deep community partnerships, and a culture of risk-taking.
It wasn’t easy. But the better approach hardly ever is.
That’s why many local leaders chose the easier approach. They’d keep this opportunity quiet, meet behind closed doors with the well-connected developers in the area, and shovel millions of Restore NY dollars into one vacant commercial building, promising “catalytic and transformative” results for the neighborhood. The result was usually the same: the production of more “market-rate housing” that priced out most struggling residents and over time shoveled generous profits back into the developer’s bank account.
That can’t happen here, not now. Like most communities across this country, Binghamton’s housing crisis was severe before COVID-19. Our housing crisis today is an urgent five-alarm fire.
Locally, non-student tenants face a nearly impossible task to find decent, affordable housing. Our very low-income neighbors are barely holding on in the face of imminent homelessness—or have already fallen. Emergency shelters are at capacity, and funding is drying up.
With the opportunity this year alone to win up to $6 million in awards over two rounds of Restore NY funding, I encourage residents to talk with our local officials and urge them to consider the following:
- Be open, transparent, and inclusive in the brainstorming and development of Restore NY applications. Start yesterday, given the first round of $100 million in funding will open in mid-July.
- Prioritize housing justice—not fancy promises of ‘transformative’ economic development. The State commits almost a billion dollars a year to Regional Economic Development Councils (“Hunger Games”), and there are already plenty of other state, county, and local economic development incentives and programs. Restore NY funds should be directed to vacant residential properties, and result in the production of quality affordable housing, portions of which should serve extremely-low income households.
- And if the City does request funding for one or two large vacant properties, local officials MUST require that ALL residential units created with Restore NY funds be affordable for at least 30 years (though permanent affordability is preferable). In fact, the state is even offering additional funds for applicants that promise to create affordable housing units.
- Bring an immediate, temporary end to Broome County’s tax foreclosure auctions. With millions available to address vacant properties, Broome County should cancel any scheduled tax auctions, temporarily halt the use of tax auctions, and instead work with local partners and agencies to ensure the pipeline of tax foreclosed properties—most of them vacant and blighted—are included in Restore NY project applications and either demolished or repurposed in a way that benefits our residents, strengthens our neighborhoods, and advances equitable outcomes.
I acknowledge the rules have changed over the years, and Restore NY applications need to identify a cluster of vacant properties in a defined geographical area, making the Ryan administration’s approach with the first three rounds (taking all vacant and blighted residential properties from the County’s tax foreclosure list, regardless of where they were) very difficult. But it’s not impossible.
Here are a few details of the program for those who like to geek out:
- Binghamton will be eligible to ask for up to $3 million in EACH round (July and October)
- For residential properties, the following limits apply:
- Up to $150,000 per property for rehab
- Up to $30,000 per property for demolition
- Up to $70,000 per rental unit for rehabbing multi-unit rental properties (and an additional one-time bonus of $150,000 per rental property if all units are affordable)
- Applicants will need to commit a 10% match (can be cash or in-kind, as in staff time)
- Round one will be launched around July 11, and communities will need to submit a letter of intent within 30 days, and the final application will be due 90 days after that (same process for the launch of the October round of $150 million). The letter of intent and application will need to identify the exact addresses of the properties.
- Only local governments can apply (cities, towns, villages, and counties—but counties will need to coordinate with the municipality in which the properties are located)
- Land banks and nonprofit affordable housing developers aren’t eligible to apply, but no question both should be brought into local conversations as soon as possible to discuss partnership opportunities
Binghamton still has more than $12 million in ARPA funds (federal pandemic recovery awards), which has a spending deadline of December 31, 2026.
The state will soon announce $50 million in grant funds available to the 26 operating land banks, which includes Broome County Land Bank.
And now there’s $250 million available through Restore NY to tackle vacant and abandoned properties.
The next few years present an unprecedented opportunity to transform vacant properties into meeting our community’s urgent affordable housing needs.
Please join me in encouraging our local officials to seize it.
Tarik Abdelazim works for a national nonprofit that helps communities equitably and effectively address vacant, abandoned, and deteriorated properties; serves on the Broome County Land Bank board; and played a lead role in the design and implementation of the City’s award-winning approach to Restore NY as Binghamton’s Deputy Mayor and Director of Planning, Housing, and Community Development from 2006 – 2013 in Matt Ryan’s administration.