Choolokian Stops Dubious PILOT; At Least Temporarily, or So It Seems
By Mike Hudson
Publicly subsidized, low income housing projects are particularly beloved by city officials in Niagara Falls. A big part of the money for such projects often comes from the state and federal governments, and the officials get to dot the city with little monuments to themselves.
In 2005, the Niagara Falls Housing Authority proposed the Hope VI housing project. The project was meant to build 282 units of new public housing, and came with an original price tag of $54 million.
Before it was completed the cost of the project, including infrastructure, and development costs, had ballooned to more than $80 million, meaning that each of the housing units cost more than $250,000 per unit, most of it paid for by the taxpayer.
The project received a $20 million grant from the federal department of Housing and Urban Development in 2006, along with more than $7 million in city casino money, $16 million in county-issued and secured bonds and numerous state grants funneled through the offices of state Assemblywoman Francine Del Monte.
Because the development was overseen by the Housing Authority, no real estate taxes are paid on the property and the developer - Norstar Development - walked away with tens of millions in profit.
Few homes in Niagara Falls sell for more than $200,000, meaning that mainly low-income, welfare, SSI and/or government subsidized individuals, subsidized by a potpourri of "too weak to work or produce more than I take" programs, received brand new apartments as nice as many in the swank Parkway Condominiums.
Lots of housing here
It’s not like there isn’t any low income housing available in the city to begin with. Rental units here start at less than $300 a month and it’s the rare apartment that goes for more than $500.
And for every two who move into one of the city’s publicly funded developments, a duplex somewhere in the city goes vacant, likely to be abandoned for taxes and eventually torn down at taxpayer expense.
Niagara Falls Mayor Paul Dyster’s handpicked director of community development, Seth Piccirillo, is a young fellow, and perhaps he doesn’t recall the cost overruns and economic disaster brought about by the six-year Hope VI project.
Because he wants to do the whole thing over again, reinvent the wheel and create even more unneeded and unnecessary public housing here.
Piccirillo said he was puzzled and angry last week when City Council Chairman Glenn Choolokian effectively managed to deny tax breaks to a pair of proposed developments, both of which are slated to be built using former schoolhouses.
CB Emmanuel Realty LLC asked for a 30-year PILOT tax deal in order to resurrect the former South Junior High School on Portage Road into a warren of 800-square-foot apartments, while an outfit called Housing Visions wanted a 20-year PILOT for a former school district building on Walnut Avenue.
According to CB Emmanuel officials, the cost of the small, one-and two-bedroom apartments they would create inside the walls of South Junior would cost around $400,000 apiece.
Which is astronomical in a beleaguered real estate market like the City of Niagara Falls.
Taxes deter new builds
No new private homes have been erected in the city since the 1970s, and there’s a reason for that. Niagara Falls has the highest taxes compared to property values of any city in the United States.
And woe to the young couple, looking for a nice place to raise a family, who would be stupid enough to buy one of the hundreds of vacant lots that litter the city and attempt to build a house on it. Would there be any discussion of payment in lieu of taxes?
Not bloody likely.
So instead, young couples with housing money to spend leave Niagara Falls and head to Lewiston, Wheatfield or the Town of Niagara, while Seth and his boss Dyster, Councilwoman Kristen Grandinetti and Councilman Charlie Walker do everything in their power to increase the tax burden on homeowners in the city through sweetheart deals and taxpayer-subsidized projects exactly like those Choolokian put a stop to last week.
One man, one vote
What happened was this: Councilman Bob Anderson was home, sick with the flu and couldn’t attend last week’s council meeting, and Councilman Sam Fruscione was forced to recuse himself from the vote because it involved school district property and he’s a school district employee.
That left Choolokian, Grandinetti (who is also a school district employee) and Walker, and Choolokian wasn’t playing patty cake. Since three votes were needed to move the tax breaks through, they failed, due to the courage of a single man.
“We found people that have experience converting these buildings and we basically just told them to leave council chambers,” the pusillanimous Piccirillo sputtered. “We have explained the details. We have made sure to keep the community updated. But they have made a decision that the way these buildings stand today is acceptable to them.”
In contrast, Choolokian was as cool as a cucumber.
“The PILOTs were definitely too long,” Choolokian said. “That bothered me and if I’m not comfortable with something I’m going to vote no.”
The vacancy rate of currently existing rental housing property in the city exceeds 40 percent. And people with enough money to leave Niagara Falls are doing so at a rate of more than 1,000 a year since Mayor Dyster took office six years ago, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
So what is the purpose of creating new, publicly-subsidized housing here?
There can only be two reasons and they both stink. The first would be to enrich the private developers who do the projects and the second, more odious prospect is that public housing is open to pedophiles and other sex offenders, paroled violent criminals, unemployable individuals like drug addicts from out of the area, brought in to prop up the city’s sagging population numbers.
Representatives of both CB Emmanuel and Housing Visions said over the weekend they will forge ahead with their plans despite the Choolokian setback last week. They know as well as anybody that, once Andrew Touma - cousin of Dyster campaign manager Craig Touma - replaces Sam Fruscione on the Council Jan. 1, the tax breaks will go through and they will have plenty of other people’s money to play with.
|Niagara Falls Reporter - Publisher Frank Parlato Jr.||www.niagarafallsreporter.com||
Dec 03, 2013