As reported previously here at The Bridge, Binghamton is in line for $48 million in flexible federal aid to support recovery efforts as we emerge from the crushing impacts and trauma wrought by the pandemic.
The first $24 million is expected by May 10, and the second half will be wired by the US Treasury around May 2022. The deadline to spend funds is December 31, 2024, giving us about three and a half years to plan and invest these dollars for an equitable recovery.
All 19,000 local jurisdictions across the nation are receiving an award as part of Biden’s American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), and the eye-popping numbers have Republican and Democratic mayors excited about the once-in-a-lifetime investment.
Some mayors have already started announcing priorities.
For example, the Mayor of Toledo (OH) is committing about $60 million of the City’s $188 million dollar award to an array of housing and neighborhood revitalization investments, including demolition, new housing construction, housing preservation, and grants to improve housing health and energy-efficiency.
Some mayors are drowning under fiscal stress, and have already pledged most of their federal recovery dollars to right city finances.
Fortunately, here in Binghamton, the good work of the last two administrations positioned the City to weather the pandemic without much fiscal distress, as reported previously here at The Bridge.
In fact, Mayor David has stated publicly that only about $5 million of the $48 million will be needed to cover lost revenue or to reimburse unexpected expenses due to the pandemic.
That leaves about $43 million for Binghamton to develop a thoughtful three-year investment strategy that leads to an equitable recovery.
Mayor David has already gone on record that he wants to prioritize sewer lines and upgrade the water plant.
Cue the crickets.
Fortunately, the fate of most of these funds will be determined by the next Mayor, but that doesn’t mean either candidate will make better choices. Thus, it’s important for the community to take the lead in imagining how best to invest these funds.
Let me submit one proposal: $25 million for the Great Housing Reset.
THE GREAT HOUSING RESET
It may be helpful to first outline the budget for the Great Housing Reset, and then use that as a frame to explain how it resolves longstanding systemic inequities and advances a just and equitable recovery.
The Great Housing Reset, $25,000,000
- $1,000,000 to carry out a citywide reassessment to fix a broken, outdated system and ensure fair and equitable assessments
- $1,000,000 to carry out a full citywide rental permitting program, boosting the Code Enforcement capacity to conduct health and safety inspections of all rental units in the City over the next three years
- $10,000,000 in matching grants to landlords who comply with the permitting program to carry out necessary repairs and energy-efficiency upgrades to ensure quality, safe, healthy, energy-efficient housing, with grants prioritized to those landlords who promise to rent to low-income and very low-income individuals and families for the next five years
- $4,000,000 to increase production of permanent affordable housing units
- $4,000,000 to increase production of housing units that serve very-low income families and individuals
- $3,000,000 to the Broome County Land Bank to support acquisitions and rehabs of vacant or tax-foreclosed properties
- $2,000,000 to support ongoing initiatives providing housing support and services to vulnerable tenants (Right to Counsel, Tenant-Landlord Mediation Services, etc.)
If the pandemic taught us anything, it’s that housing is health—and far too many people had their health compromised because of insecure or unsafe housing. Regrettably but not surprisingly, people of color and low-income families were disproportionately impacted by the pandemic for a number of reasons, including unsafe and insecure housing.
Thus, an equitable recovery should absolutely prioritize housing.
The Great Housing Reset will finally correct two longstanding underlying and systemic challenges in Binghamton that have created inequitable, unsafe, and unhealthy outcomes for our property owners and tenants:
- A broken, inequitable property assessment system, which hasn’t been updated since 1993, that benefits landlords of student rental properties and downtown property owners and disadvantages all other property owners, including homeowners and mom-and-pop landlords that rent to non-student populations.
- Too many landlords operating rental units that are unsafe and unhealthy—with lead and mold hazards or exposed wirings and broken windows—because the City refuses to follow in the footsteps of hundreds of communities in NY and across the country that have passed rental inspection and/or permitting programs to protect the health and safety of all tenants.
The citywide revaluation will ensure an equitable and fair property assessment system and the citywide rental permitting program will ensure healthy and safe housing units for all tenants. Together, these two will set the foundation for better outcomes for all residents as well as an improved real estate market—grounded in equity, health, and safety.
The Great Housing Reset proposes to invest $10 million dollars in matching repair grants to responsible landlords who comply with the permitting program and commit to being part of the solution in providing safe, healthy, energy-efficient housing to our residents, particularly non-student populations that have been most harmed and impacted by a boom in the conversion of rental housing to serve students.
Implementing these two key policies and rolling out this matching grant fund program as part of the Great Housing Reset will transform our housing in a collaborative and supportive manner that rewards responsible owners, expels the bad ones, improves health and safety for tenants, and prioritizes equitable outcomes.
But there’s more to The Great Housing Reset. It includes additional investments targeted to address other issues that undermine housing justice for all in Binghamton. For instance:
- Recognizing the Broome Community Land Trust’s unique mission to produce permanent affordable housing with a focus on racial equity, we can help bring more properties under community control and offer Black and Brown residents and low-income families a chance at building wealth through homeownership. ($4,000,000)
- Acknowledging the massive shortage of rental units available to very-low income households, we can direct funds to expand the production of safe, quality, affordable housing to families and individuals making less than $30,000 a year. ($4,000,000)
- Instead of the County auctioning off tax-foreclosed properties to the highest bidders, which tend to be the same speculators and slumlords that are causing problems across our neighborhoods, the Broome County Land Bank can acquire and steward these distressed properties to responsible users that better match community needs. ($3,000,000)
- We can set-aside funds to be used flexibly to enhance existing programs that assist and protect vulnerable tenants and fill a critical gap of services to minimize housing insecurity and advance housing justice. ($2,000,000)
Forget sewer lines and water plant upgrades.
Housing should be the top priority of any equitable recovery. With the Great Housing Reset, we can finally fix the systemic inequities in our housing sector, and in the process, advance multiple goals: (i) ensure a more equitable assessment and property tax system; (ii) improve the safety of all rental housing units and thus the health and security of all tenants; (iii) support small contractors and mom-and-pop landlords, ensuring economic activity benefits local entrepreneurs and workers; (iv) expand opportunities for community ownership and wealth-building for Black, Brown, and low-income residents; and (v) create a culture and network of partners that value and advance housing security and justice for all.
This is provided as a preliminary framework for housing investments, and I look forward to working alongside and in partnership with community members—particularly those most impacted by housing insecurity and injustice—to alter, refine and improve this proposal.
Tarik Abdelazim currently works for a national nonprofit that helps communities address systemic vacancy and disinvestment in support of equitable development, and previously served as the Director of Planning Housing and Community Development for the City of Binghamton. He is a frequent contributor to The Bridge.