The Union-Sun & Journal is in touch with Common Council candidates in competitive races to get their thoughts on different issues in the city of Lockport. Every Friday through the end of this month, we’re publishing the candidates’ answers to four questions asked of all of them.
Today's question is: What more, if any more, should the City of Lockport do to address and attack property blight in residential and commercial areas?
Alderman at Large
I would support code enforcement programs to inspect, investigate and take administrative and judicial actions to gain compliance with state and local laws that regulate the safety and condition of properties within the city.
Other Western New York communities have adopted regulations that require property owners or managers to register their vacant properties to monitor the condition of these properties, and require that minimum repairs are made to protect public safety.
I am also in favor of an ordinance that would require landlords with properties of a certain size and number of tenants to obtain a yearly inspection and license.
I have thought for years about offering a tax relief program for homebuyers that purchase multi-family homes and convert them back to single family homes or owner-occupied duplexes.
I am in favor of supporting community-based development programs working to rehabilitate homes such as Workforce Development or Orleans/Niagara BOCES working with Habitat for Humanity.
The decision to demolish vacant and unsafe blighted properties is difficult and expensive. But I have read about with great interest the federal cleanup proposal of the Simonds Saw and Steel Mill site on Ohio Street. And that can't come soon enough. We must keep after that and the timeline; also the DEC cleanup of the city dump at Upper Mountain Road, that could be developed into a restored waterway park area.
We have a great commercial and private property stock in our city. I am in favor of changing some of the zoning laws that have been outdated for decades to promote growth within the city. My hope is to establish Lockport as a business friendly city.
Alderman at Large
Blight is a complex issue, there is no singular cause or solution but disinvestment over time plays a major role. Every city has issues with blight, some are dealing with it better than others, so taking a look at what is working in other cities could be useful.
To effectively improve blight the city needs to involve residents, business owners and landlords, it has to be a group effort. They then need to come up with a cohesive plan of attack. This at the very least should include where and when to focus efforts, determine what actions should be taken and what resources are available. They should start downtown and move outward. A drive or walk down Main Street is less than inspiring. No one will invest in a city that doesn't invest in itself.
Some cities are using public private partnership, setting up neighborhood improvement districts, looking at crime prevention through environmental design, holding negligent property owners accountable and using innovative civic technologies. These are all worth investigating.
Some of the most successful strategies take place at the neighborhood level. Getting young people involved is a must. We need to come together as a community to help create the city we want and deserve.
City property blight is a concern for all residents as well as property owners. It detracts from a vision of a city that values and (has) respect for their homes and businesses alike to their neighbors and those who visit or do business here. While zoning and property codes, laws and policies to enforce these issues are important, we need department staff to oversee that they are being followed as well as residents and businesses owners who understand and follow them. I believe, due to many factors, many positions in the city are under-staffed to address some of these issues, and blight is certainly one of the issues facing the Building Department.
The Planning & Zoning Committee has some of this in as their task of maintaining a process of over-utility of property uses. However, I would think we would be better served by providing some support in wards for recognition of those policies and guidelines in a non-threatening manner, through outreach and training. We can also take a closer look at what federal or state funding might be available to home owners or businesses through grants and sponsorship. Are they ways to support a public & private venture to begin the process of locating funding in turn for in-kind services of owners for improvements?
Likewise, the costs of materials and resources during the pandemic have skyrocketed making it more costly to buy resources, even if they are available. Perhaps a long term goal could be developing a more defined outreach and community agenda to secure possible resources for improvement and prioritize the areas that need the most support and work forward. Adopting a model of volunteerism and support from city leadership and committee could go a long way to improve blight, even one building or structure at a time.
I had the unique opportunity to "see" the city with a different set of eyes. I worked with my partner whose company purchased a well-established engineering company located in the first ward which meant the jobs and the business stayed in Lockport. It was very apparent to an outside investor that Lockport is run-down and this almost hindered the sale of the business. When a city looks blighted it presents the appearance that qualified workers don’t live here, and this will cause businesses to look elsewhere.
In 2007 the Building Inspection Department had four inspectors, this allowed for the inspection of many blighted apartment houses owned by the absentee landlords. As a Lockport Police officer, I was assigned and aided the inspectors as we served numerous search warrants on the landlords. Our efforts were paying off! Then the city decided to slash the department in half. Was this done intentionally? I wondered, as the landlords appear to have a great deal of power in the city. We need to have a properly staffed Building Inspection Department.
I will work with fire, police and building inspectors to form a Neighborhood Enhancement Team. We owe it to our community to stop the “Broken Window Theory.” It's a proven theory if you leave a car / house / building with one broken window, in no time at all, more broken windows and doors will appear; the visible signs of crime and civil disorder create an environment that encourages further serious crimes.
I propose to allow homeowners who make capital improvements to the exterior of their homes a five-year grace period before their assessments is raised. Currently if a homeowner makes an exterior home improvement like say new siding the city quickly raises their assessment. This has deterred many from home improvements and contributed to the blight.
Blighted areas of the city reduce property values, increase disinvestment of our neighborhoods, and promote a depressed overall tone further perpetuating population loss. Vacant properties in both residential and commercial areas not only come with unsightliness but also pose a potential hit to our property tax revenue and can make budget time stressful. These blighted areas can also be magnets for crime and eventually lead to increases in calls and costs to our police and fire departments so it is essential that we address them.
The broken windows theory is one that comes to mind with these blighted areas. For the past two years, addressing property blight has been an issue that has frustrated countless residents throughout the city. As housing courts have been closed due to Covid, there has been a stagnation of addressing many of these issues throughout the city. Our city staff in code enforcement were taking note and doing their job throughout this past Covid period, unfortunately their hands were tied in many ways as the courts provided the legal teeth needed for action.
Identifying and taking proper inventory of these properties is important in addressing the areas of blight so we have clear targets and can come up with individualized plans. I know I always feel the peer pressure when I hear the neighbor’s lawn mower to get out and cut my lawn. Ultimately, encouraging our residents in the city to take care of their properties (cut lawn, plant flowers, fresh paint, upkeep fences, etc.) will promote a general positivity of the neighborhood. Working with landlords and tenants to address and ensure that properties are upkept and well maintained is also important. These small changes will have a compounding effect on our city.
I continue to see and believe in the potential that the City of Lockport has to meet this critical moment in addressing our city’s need for 21st century housing. First, I think Lockport needs to stop the demolitions of the older buildings that make up Lockport’s rich historical culture and focus on rehabilitating these properties while in-tandem building new infill on vacant land.
A step in the right direction would be to revise the current land rules. If elected as Alderwoman, I would work alongside colleagues on the city council in revising these rules to be replaced with a code based upon the existing form of the neighborhood(s). This would foster a specific urban form that would result in predictable built results and a higher quality public realm. In other words, by increasing the potential density of our neighborhoods through more affordable housing options, we will be able to welcome more young working families and professionals to our great city. With more eyes on the street, the more safer our neighborhoods become. Additionally, this concept emphasizes the physical form of the existing neighborhood as the organizing principle while minimizing the focus on land use.
Over the decades our current R1 and R2 zoning have served to severely restrict the development of housing that isn’t as dense as a traditional downtown nor as sparse as suburban. Since most of Lockport’s blight is in the neighborhoods surrounding downtown, repairing that blight is also essential to a successful urban center. Downtown and its neighborhoods need to feed off of one another to prosper, rather than be drawn apart by outdated zoning rules.
Property blight is a symptom of systemic problems in our city. It's caused by absentee landlords failing to adequately upkeep their properties. I am going to use the powers of the city to force slumlords to either get their buildings up to code or risk losing them. Landlords letting their properties fall into disrepair, especially out-of-city landlords, are in violation of city code and we need to enforce those regulations to get the crumbling buildings and vacant lots fixed.
I had the pleasure of going away this past weekend with eight women born and raised in the city of Lockport. I asked them the question you asked me as a candidate. They all said "incentives to fix up property." I told them about the first-time buyers program that is in place. And that the City has an application they just sent out for the residents to fix their homes. Three of the women experience blight in their own neighborhoods, as do I. And every one of them is bank-owned or rental properties. Again, not to seem redundant but I believe the wheels are in motion for these things to be addressed. In the short term I'd like to see the police officers lend a hand and help with the parking in front yards and over sidewalks.
Furthermore, the zoning codes in the City of Lockport don't leave a lot of room for hybrid properties and they make it inconvenient for people who aren't wealthy to buy new commercial property in Lockport. Zoning reform would make Lockport more attractive to Western New Yorkers looking to open small businesses or buy rental properties: Local investors, who care about the neighborhood and will work to keep it beautiful.
The City of Lockport has been fighting property blight for many years and has entertained several different approaches. A few years back, the City formed a task force to determine how many “zombie houses” were within the city limits. The properties were catalogued and investigated to determine who was responsible for the maintenance of those properties. We need to continue with this method and include all properties that are abandoned, neglected, and unsafe. Properties that are in disarray attract rodents, create a health hazard, host unwanted activity and are detrimental to surrounding property values.
City ordinances should be reviewed and any necessary revisions should be updated. In effort to enforce the building codes, the City should continue to work with the property owners by providing proper notice and allowing adequate time to bring the property up to code. Property owners should be provided with any available resources or guidance that would assist them with this request. The City should hold any property owners accountable who ignore or fail to comply with these requests. However, the City should also take into consideration if any efforts have been made by the property owner to address code violations.
If by chance the City obtains possession of a property, they should provide a tax incentive for potential buyers/developers. A reduction in taxes would offset the cost to rejuvenate the property, but in the long run would add to the tax roll and increase surrounding property values. The City should review what programs or grants are available for restoration of these properties, such as land banks or grant funded programs. The City should assess what resources are needed for their departments to comply with such programs. The City has to be cohesive to ensure the successful revitalization of the City of Lockport.
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Fifth Ward alderman candidate Jon Wiley did not reply to this week's question.
In the 3rd Ward, incumbent Alderman Mark Devine is unopposed for re-election.
Two other candidates on the November general election ballot, Working Families Party designees John R. Scarpinato and Sienna R. Marren, have told the Union-Sun & Journal that they did not intend to pursue election to a city office and are not campaigning.