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City Council candidates weigh in on evolving housing problems

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In recent years, solving the need for rental housing for Fort Drum soldiers has been a focus of the community.

But as soldiers move into apartment complexes being built in the area, that need is being met. That leaves a different potential problem: The city’s aging rental housing stock could become vacant and begin to deteriorate.

The six Watertown City Council candidates running in the Sept. 10 primary are weighing in with their views about Watertown’s changing housing landscape and the effects it might have on neighborhoods.

Four political newcomers are challenging incumbents Teresa R. Macaluso and Jeffrey M. Smith. The candidates who have come forward to unseat them are Jasmine W. Borreggine, Stephen A. Jennings, Cody J. Horbacz and Rodney J. LaFave. The top four vote-getters in the primary Sept. 10 will move on to the general election Nov. 5. Elected offices in the city are nonpartisan; any registered voter may participate in the primary.

Housing has become an issue in the primary after the recent announcement that Neighbors of Watertown Inc. is going after $1 million in state funding that would be used to fix up the city’s rental housing stock. If the money becomes available, Neighbors would establish a revolving loan fund allowing landlords to borrow as much as $20,000 per unit to rehabilitate about 50 units inside and outside the city.

The program would target Fort Drum soldiers and middle-income tenants.

For the most part, the six candidates said they like the idea, but they also offered other insights into city’s housing situation.

RENTS TOO HIGH?

Mrs. Borreggine said the flow of residents moving out of the city already has begun. She noted that census statistics showed Watertown has lost 7 percent of its population since 1992, even though Jefferson County has been one of the fastest-growing counties in the state.

She blamed high taxes for businesses and people leaving.

Ms. Macaluso said she believes the city should support the Neighbors project.

“They know the needs and the best response for it,” she said, adding that it will be interesting to see the effect of the new apartment complexes that have sprung up. “It’s going to be a year or two away, but it’s going to be interesting to see.”

While some people say Watertown is saturated with low-income housing, Ms. Macaluso said there is still a need for it, especially since rents are high in the city. She is encouraged by three major downtown projects: the $65 million to $70 million redevelopment of the old Mercy Hospital property, the restoration of the vacant Woolworth Building and the Lincoln Building rehabilitation. All three projects will incorporate affordable housing.

Mr. Smith said that he is not convinced that the Neighbors proposal is the way to go to and that he still has a lot of questions. “The devil’s in the details,” he said.

Instead, he said, the answer may lie with a program that he worked on with Neighbors about 10 years ago. It used a pool of grants totaling $1.2 million that targeted an entire neighborhood for rehab work on single-family and multifamily homes in what is called the Near East Side Neighborhood Improvement District. That strategy worked and could be used again, Mr. Smith said.

He also supports the city going forward with cleaning up the old Ogilvie Foods plant off California Avenue and constructing “in-fill” housing and a neighborhood park.

HELP BASED ON NEED

Mr. Horbacz favors a need-based approach. “We need to invest in our poor neighborhoods,” he said.

The focus should not be only on housing, he said. Crime could decrease if low-income children had more recreational activities, and adding more playgrounds could help, he said.

Mr. Jennings said he would like the city to establish a local variation of a national program, Building Sustainable Communities, which focuses on rebuilding neighborhoods.

Modeled on the efforts of the national organization Local Initiatives Support Corp., the idea is to offer grants for housing rehabilitation, create jobs through economic development, provide job training and educational programs and add green space, playgrounds and recreational programs that promote healthy lives.

It involves rebuilding blighted neighborhoods through “a more holistic approach” to improve people’s quality of life, Mr. Jennings said. It focuses on economic development, residents’ health and the roles of law enforcement and education.

“They are all linked,” he said. “I think it’s something we can replicate here.”

Mr. LaFave said he worries about how one problematic property can lead to a domino effect and cause a street and then a neighborhood to deteriorate. He said he’s concerned about absentee landlords and rental properties.

Giving the city’s code enforcement officer more tools would help, Mr. LaFave said. Instead of basing the office on a complaint-driven model, it could go to an inspection program. All apartments would be inspected every couple of years. Fees to landlords would pay for the program, he said.

Instead of going to code enforcement, residents should first go to their neighbors if they have a complaint about their property, such as grass that is too high, Mrs. Borreggine said.

“People need to take personal responsibility,” she said about owners not taking care of their properties.

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