Albany now has a better sense of how many vacant buildings it has -- and a common starting point for taking on the problem

vacant buildings on Clinton Ave in West Hill 2018-January

Clinton Ave in West Hill.

What's been clear: The city of Albany has a lot of vacant buildings.

What's not been clear: Exactly which buildings are vacant, and what's the actual total number of them.

But the city now has a new vacant building list, and it's probably the best, most accurate estimate in years.

It's part of a larger process to more proactively take on issues such as vacant buildings, code enforcement, and neighborhood development.

OK, so how many vacant buildings?

City of Albany Building Blocks Vacant Building map 2018-January screengrab
screengrab via city of Albany

The current best estimate is that there are 1,044 vacant buildings in Albany, according to Sam Wells, the neighborhood stabilization coordinator for the city of Albany. That's out of roughly 30,000 properties in the city.

The vacant building number is, as Wells cautions, always changing. And the definition of "vacant" used for this list is more inclusive than city's vacant building registry. For example, a building that's empty and locked up -- because, say, it's owned by a bank after a foreclosure -- would be included on this list, but wouldn't necessarily appear on the vacant building registry, which collects buildings that aren't secured by normal means.

(A 2012 effort by the Jennings administration pegged the number of vacant buildings at roughly 800.)

This new estimate is the product of an effort headed up by Wells, who started his job with the city last year, to gather up all sorts data about properties around the city for a new system that, for the first time, combines all those bits of info in one place. The hope is it will help city goverment have a better sense of what's going on and allow it to better strategize about ways to move forward. (More on that in a second.)

Wells presented the new vacant building inventory and data system to the city's Vacant Building Task Force on Wednesday. A few other takeaways from his presentation:

+ Of those 1,044 vacant structures, 639 were cited during the past two years. And a little more than two thirds of those cited properties were among the buildings judged to be in the worst shape.

+ 402 of the buildings were the source of at least one police call in the last two years.

+ 397 of the properties owed taxes as of December 2017.

+ And, in what's maybe a glimmer of hope, some sort of permit was issued for 219 of the buildings in the last two years.

Wells told the task force that the majority of buildings on the new list are assessed at a value less than $50k. And that highlights one of the major sticking points in getting these buildings back into use: many of them require work that would cost more than their market value when finished. The city currently has $1 million in funding to distribute as grants to help cover this gap for vacant building projects.

More than just a simple list

City of Albany Building Blocks Property Search screengrab
screengrab via city of Albany

As mentioned above, the city created this new vacant building list as part of a larger project to pull together all sorts of data on properties -- bits like code enforcement actions, snow shoveling violations, police calls, tax status. And Wells has been pouring that data into a system called Building Blocks, a cloud-based service the city is paying for via a grant from the state Attorney General's office (here's a demo video).

The system can do a bunch of things with all this property data, but first and foremost it provides one location for the information that's easily accessible to various city departments.

"It's huge for the city," Wells said Wednesday during a meeting break. "It gives us a big advantage that wasn't there before. So before when you wanted to see how each department interacted with a property, you had to call or send over e-mails and it took time and effort and energy. And now it's there, available at a few clicks of a button. It's a speed and efficiency we haven't had before."

This ease of access opens the way for different parts of the city to work together more smoothly. For example: Wells said one of his next tasks is to meet up with the police department's Neighborhood Engagement Unit and get the officers there working with system, accessing information about problem properties, and adding info back into the system based on what they see.

Wells told the task force they're looking to add more data going forward, such as water department data about low or high usage. Low usage could indicate vacancy, and unsually high usage could indicate a problem such as a burst pipe.

Building on that info

City of Albany Building Blocks Scoring Function
screengrab via city of Albany

The most interesting potential uses of this new data system are ones in which the city might pull together a handful of threads and use the resulting patterns to be proactive.

Another example: The Building Blocks system has info about occupied properties, too. And Wells said he's hoping to work with Rob Magee, director the city's buildings and regulatory compliance department, to look for what he called blind spots in code enforcement.

"So we can look at properties that have seen multiple police cases, multiple complaints to DGS, also owe taxes -- but haven't had any code violations," he said. "And then go in and say, you know, these are properties that need code enforcement attention, but haven't received it in the past."

And a step beyond that: The system allows the city to analyze and score properties based on their various characteristics and highlight properties that are endanger of becoming vacant. The city could then potentially take action in an attempt to head off a problem.*

"So we can look at properties that have seen multiple police cases, multiple complaints to DGS, also owe taxes -- but haven't had any code violations. And then go in and say, you know, these are properties that need code enforcement attention, but haven't received it in the past."

There might also be potential for the city to work with partners beyond city government. Adam Zaranko -- the executive director of the Albany County Land Bank (an independent org that works get foreclosed properties back into use) and a member of the task force -- pointed to an example in the South End where the land bank has been involved in multiple properties.

"Now what we can do is maybe target a block or two and just comprehensively address different layers," Zaranko said. "Why not now, with this data, understand which properties to target on the city's side of the ledger so they don't fall into foreclosure and intercept them before they get in the pipeline and take that many year journey to the land bank."

Public data -- but not necessarily available to the public

The data the city's gathering for this new information system is mostly public. Much of it is the sort of thing for which a member of the public could theoretically file a FOIL request. But for the moment the city is not planning to make the system that pulls it all together available to the public.

Mayor Kathy Sheehan said during Wednesday's meeting that officials are concerned that making all of this information about buildings easily accessible to anyone could also open the way for people to use it in nefarious ways. She pointed to the possibility of, say, people scouting the list of vacant buildings in the lowest level category -- buildings that, from the outside, don't appear vacant -- and targeting them for something like pipe theft.

And Sam Wells mentioned another issue with opening the system to the public: it's complicated to use.

"It's a heavy analytics tool," he said, talking about how it's sometimes hard to know what exactly you're looking at and what it means. "The last thing we want to do is mislead the public."

* Something to keep an eye on for the future: Using this sort of data analysis for making decisions about things like code enforcement or other action also raises some ethical issues about what factors are being considered, how they're being considered, and who they affect. And are there ways for these methods to be transparent and accountable to the public?


+ A chunk of money for chipping away at the number of vacant buildings in Albany

+ Bringing Albany buildings back from blight and making them into owner-occupied homes

+ Map: vacant buildings in Albany (2012)


Great work....pretty sure for 4 cents worth of black paper and 8 cents worth of yellow paint I could have come up with the same map of vacant properties just by the hard part.....fix it!!! PS will involve attracting private investment and jobs to the city itself......NOT rocket science.

Yay, Sam! Good work!

Does anyone know why it takes so long after a foreclosure or death for a house to go on the market? Sometimes it 5 or more years.

After a death, there are any number of scenarios that prevent the listing and sale of a property, starting with the person died without a will, or without any relatives willing to step forward to file an estate proceeding, or the property owner owed so much on the mortgage that there was no equity that would be realized on sale--so the relatives, stop paying taxes and insurance and let the bank foreclose. (foreclosing against an estate is a very long process, and unusually long when there is no Will or No estate proceeding) And bank foreclosures against a living person take about 2 years from start to finish, assuming all the procedures are followed (and assuming all of the interested parties are served papers, etc)....very few houses are actually purchased at the mortgage foreclosure auction (you essentially are buying it blind, and the bank wants you to bid at least $1 above the amount of the mortgage(including the costs and fees to do the foreclosure), so the bank ends up owning the property---and lacks the staff or expertise to manage the property (and don't want to take on the obligations of being a landlord). Ugly, Ugly situation

Thanks jsc.

So sad, many of the homes just fall into such bad disrepair.

Worse than that.....they don’t really just “fall into disrepair”.....multifactorial issues come into play from zoning rules to tax rules to crime and neglect to lack of private jobs and investment to lack of education or training to lack of adequate city and state services to laws that favor strip and suburban development to........could continue on forever....almost never a “random”event..

Nice work Sam!

50 Edgecomb Street is an abandoned property that had a fire back in June of 2017. This property has been a nuisance for years. The owner passed away in November of 2017. According to public tax records, both the school taxes and property taxes haven’t been paid in over 3 years. The property is a hideous eyesore. What happens with this property that clearly has been abandoned?


You're right - school taxes are still outstanding for 17, 16, 15, and 14. The county clerk has a record for the beginning of the foreclosure process by the bank, which began 9/13/17. The plaitiff's attorney sent a motion to the court on 10/23 sating the matter had been settled. On 11/8/17 the mortgage was released. It would appear that the estate is catching up. As for the back taxes.... after a certain time period the county could begin foreclosure.

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