OPINION: Ellicott Station is not looking like a 'Pathway to Prosperity'
Ellicott Station was sold to Batavia as part of our community's "Pathway to Prosperity."
It was going to bring more people Downtown to help bolster business, fill vacant storefronts, and put more feet on the street.
At the groundbreaking for the project, developer Sam Savarino, along with state, city and GCEDC officials, talked about "workforce housing." These would be apartments for people with jobs, earning $18 to $20 an hour. They would be college students just starting their careers. They would be part of the workforce at STAMP. There was no mention of people relying on government assistance to make rent, buy food, or get medical care.
Don't get me wrong, like the economic philosophers who helped define what a free-market economy is, such as Adam Smith and Friedrich Hayek, I believe some level of social welfare is necessary to help level the disruptions wrought by markets. It's good for society to ensure that nobody is left unsupported in dire poverty. So the complaint here isn't about Section 8, SNAP, or Medicaid. All of those programs have their appropriate place in our society and in our community.
But Sam Savarino is receiving millions of dollars in taxpayer-funded grants and tax incentives on the promise that his project would set us on a "Pathway to Prosperity."
Now that apartment applications are available for Ellicott Station and we can read what the rental criteria is, we predict that this project is unlikely to help the local economy and may even hurt it.
Only "very low-income" people can apply. If you're making $18 an hour, you're earning too much, unless you have dependents.
Prior to Friday, The Batavian made attempts to find out what the criteria would be to qualify tenants for Ellicott Station. The project manager for Savarino wouldn't return our calls or answer our emails. Local officials were loathed to reveal the primary criteria was "low income."
The state's Housing and Community Renewal site tells us that Ellicott Station is reserved exclusively for "low-income" tenants. That in itself may be misleading.
The federal government, Housing and Urban Department (HUD), defines low income as 80 percent of an area's median income. Ellicott Station is reserved for people making 50 to 60 percent of an area's median income. According to HUD, that is "very low income."
This isn't workforce housing, as we were promised. HUD defines workforce housing as units intended for people making 80 to 120 percent of an area's median income.
We didn't know until yesterday that this is housing intended primarily for people who qualify for Section 8 housing vouchers. Yes, since our story was published this morning, we've heard that all landlords must accept Section 8. But here's the thing: if you're renting a unit for $900 or $1,200, or more, your likely tenants earn too much money to qualify for Section 8. When your top-end rent is $740 for a family of four, as it is for Ellicott Station, there is a likelihood the applicant qualifies for Section 8.
That just doesn't fit into anybody's definition of "workforce housing."
And people who qualify for Section 8 often also qualify for SNAP and Medicaid.
Here's where that's a problem: There's no guarantee that Ellicott Station will be filled by residents of Genesee County. In fact, it seems likely that many of the new tenants will move to Batavia from outside Genesee County. Savarino can't discriminate against applicants, from what we've been told, based on current residence. The company can't exclude residents from outside the county. Since tenants will be selected by lottery, it seems likely, some percentage of residents will both be drawing on social services and from outside that county. That is going to drive up the costs of Medicaid -- already a big tax burden -- for county taxpayers.
I don't want any tenants of Ellicott Station to ever read this and think I'm against them. That isn't the point. This is a program opening up for a bunch of low-income people to have a better life. For them, that's great. They will get subsidized rent on units that include washers and dryers, refrigerators, dishwashers, microwaves, water, electricity, and air conditioning with access to broadband. Some will even get covered parking. Good for them. I remember what it was like to not have much, barely able to make rent, and constantly low on fuel for my car, so I'll cheer for the individuals who have a chance now to live a more comfortable life. I hope they make the most of it and are able to move up in the world.
That's not the point.
The point is, we were promised a "pathway to prosperity."
When I was working for low-level wages, I wasn't able to go out to nice restaurants regularly. I couldn't shop at stores like Valle Jewelers or Charles Men's Shop. I had to watch every penny. Ellicott Station isn't likely to produce a lot of foot traffic for Batavia's upper-end restaurants nor help attract new retail to Downtown and help fill some of our storefront vacancies.
And this comes at a time after we've all seen our assessments go up significantly, which is a defacto tax increase that is leading the City Council toward a vote to override the property tax cap, along with a proposal to raise water rates.
It is positive that the eye sore that was the Della Penna building and Santy Tires is gone, and we can hope good businesses move into the commercial space being built, though time will tell what businesses want to be part of the same complex that includes "very-low-income" apartments.
I've been a cheerleader for Ellicott Station because I believed even "workforce housing" would lead to more customers for Downtown businesses. I thought it could be transformative for a Downtown bespotted decades ago by Urban Renewal. A chance at a new life. I feel misled. There was a time some years ago when Savarino and city officials promised "market-rate housing" for Ellicott Station. I understand that financing big projects can be a challenge. Savarino's inability to raise the financing necessary for "market rate" is understandable. But when HRC got involved, it should have been made clear by all involved that these apartments would be for "very low-income" individuals and families and tenants would be eligible for vouchers. The lack of transparency on this point is disappointing. If we had known years ago, or at the groundbreaking, what this complex was really about, it might have seemed less than ideal, but at least, we could shrug and be thankful we're getting rid of an eyesore and getting a vacant property back on the tax roll.
It now seems clear that Savarino, GCEDC. the City of Batavia, the BDC, and HRC has misled us all over the past few years about the kind of housing going into Ellicott Station. This isn't looking like a "pathway to prosperity." Instead, it's looking like a new burden on taxpayers.
I'll be happy if I'm proven wrong.
There were news stories about all the grants and such the developer was getting and others over the years that made it clear it was not going to be market rate as originally stated. But I was always under the impression it was the other buildings for businesses that was going to be the Pathway to Prosperity. The apartments if market rate would have been an addition. And once you take state and/or federal money for any housing project, you know it will not end up middle or upper-class housing. Considering that nobody else offered to do anything with that property and it was not paying any taxes sitting there for many years, would it have been rejected if it was originally presented as it was, with all the other planed buildings, if it was going to be section 8 housing?
John, we knew years ago it wasn't going to market rate. That was no surprise.
What is a surprise, what nobody was transparent about, even when we asked the questions, was that all apartments would be available exclusively to tenants classified as "very low income." That is the new information we learned this week.
There is a big difference between workforce housing -- as it was promoted to us for a long time -- and very low income. That was never made explicitly clear, and officials and Savarino's company dodged the question when we inquired.
I think you and I both agree that getting the property on the tax rolls and cleaning up an eyesore is a positive of this project, and I agree with the statements you made that nobody else was going to take on this project. But officials and Savarino should have been honest from the time the agreement was in place with HCR that this would be very low income.
I agree with you, but not sure if at the very first anyone really knew it would be section 8. Just getting the project started took so many years and things changed. Maybe it was the developers plan to have section 8 from the beginning or the original plan was changed over the years. Good story anyway.